Best isn't always best

21st February 2014 at 00:00

One of the problems with big, bargain-filled designer discount emporiums like TK Maxx is that the second we walk into them, we lose our capacity to judge. The last time I went shopping there, I bought a silver spandex frock. The lure of owning a designer label at such a knock-down price blinded me to the fact that the dress made me look like a dirigible in a sausage skin. Now it's hidden at the back of my wardrobe until my husband forgets that it's there and won't notice when I quietly offload it on Oxfam.

This desire to acquire luxury items at discount prices affects even my weekly grocery shopping. Rather than planning the family meals and then buying the requisite ingredients, I stake out chiller cabinets, fighting with other shoppers for wilted rocket, bruised avocados and nearly-out-of-date salmon en croute.

If the rule for buying property is location, location, location, then the mantra for a bargain-hunter is brand, brand, brand. This wouldn't be so bad if my activities were all recreational, but now I'm applying the same rule to helping students choose universities. I keep steering them towards Oxbridge, the Coco Chanel of higher education. I was brought up to view these establishments as a fast-track ticket to financial success: at the Bar, in the City or - worst-case scenario - as a researcher at the BBC. But this old-fashioned, star-struck attitude of mine won't help students to make the wisest choice.

Last year, when my son applied to university, I ranked his offers by academic stature and then passive-aggressively cajoled him into opting for the "best". Some choices were easier to eliminate than others. I got rid of a tempting "unconditional offer" by saying that the university was "scraping the barrel" and only "double discounting" because numbers were so low. Others I dismissed on the grounds of distance ("No way am I driving 300 miles to deliver a Marshall amp"), cost of living ("It costs #163;35 for a pie in London") or ridicule ("A campus university, how sweet").

Since not even Machiavelli could out-manipulate an aspirational working-class mum, I got my way. My son is now at a prestigious university. But he isn't happy - and that's my fault. He lives for rock music and I tricked him into a university whose live music scene consists of euphonium recitals, madrigal groups and tributes to Peters amp; Lee.

I worry that I'm doing the same thing with my students. The removal of the cap on ABB offers means that they stand an even greater chance of getting into top universities, so I'm sending them there in droves. But maybe it would be more sensible to encourage them to follow their own interests and not just chase my idea of gold. If my son's misery has taught me anything it's this: "simply the best" isn't "better than all the rest" when it comes to student happiness. And when being a Russell Group groupie harms your kids, it's time to look for a different brand.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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