PEOPLE sometimes ask me, an American living in London, what I think of British schools. I reply with a story.
The search for a suitable school for my daughter began over transatlantic phone lines with the help of estate agents and landlords. Choices were slim. This was May, and places had been filled for months, even years. Registrars' voices were clipped. Any spaces? Sorry, no.
And then came the break, a vacancy at an independent primary near the house we'd rented. We sent off the cheque, barely glancing at the prospectus. Information about the school came by way of Lady B, who attributed our luck to the downfall of Lloyd's and the exit of Names from some of the most sought-after London schools.
Five years later, it strikes me that our approach to schooling was downright un-American. Why hadn't the neighbourhood state schools featured in our decision? No one bothered to mention the name of the local authority or tell us how to register. Instead, we were pointed in the direction of the fee-paying sector and down the road toward Common Entrance. Why?
The simple, if regrettable, explanation is that urban schooling has been a divided service for a long time. By opting out of the more rough-and-tumble primaries in west London, we weren't doing anything we wouldn't have done in, say, New York, Los Angeles or my home town of Washington DC - cities where race relations, crime, fiscal crises and much else have conspired to create a segregated system of schooling, one for richer, one for poorer.
But I think there's another, less obvious reason. My daughter, bedecked in a straw boater and grey gabardine, landed on the doorstep of an established proprietary founded in 1876. We thought we were buying a particularly British experience, one that was somehow more authentic than whatever the local state school might have offered.
Like it or not, British state schooling doesn't figure prominently in the cultural mythology. The older independents, on the other hand, have almost legendary status. Americans arrive with an archive of dated images stashed in their heads (hoary headmasters, the playing fields of Eton), pictures gleaned from the library shelves, the cinema and BBC exports. Ex-pats tend to think of British education as a costume drama, and we want a bit part, uniforms and all.
If foreigners unfairly dismiss the state schools, it's partly because we pick up on the subtle messages and signals of the natives. The British have never been sure of, or comfortable with, the state's role in education, and the ambivalence shows.
Odd words, I know, in a country with a national curriculum, league tables, national vocational qualifications and all the rest. Nevertheless, I would argue that the voluntary tradition remains vivid in the collective memory of a nation that came relatively late, historically speaking, to central control and systemisation.
Too many people regard the current system as having been grafted on to something older, better. That's why there's a lingering nostalgia for grammar schools, a tolerance for selection and a preponderance of interest in the independents, which retain considerable influence though they educate a small percentage of students.
This deference to the past also helps to explain the doubts and denigrations that come from parents and politicians.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the British state schools are inferior. On the contrary, those that I visited several years ago while doing some research were impressive places. But I am suggesting that there' s a not-so-subtle prejudice against them.
It is this attitude that differentiates Britain from the United States, where public education is respected, almost revered, despite the fact that plenty of particular schools are in crisis, objects of scorn or shirked by the middle and upper classes. Parents who abandon their neighbourhood schools often do so with a sense of frustration and regret (as opposed to pride and relief).
This reaction has something to do with residual liberal guilt, perhaps; but it also reflects the sensibility of a nation founded on the ideals of common schooling - ideals that go back to the Puritans. The local schools, maintained by the community, are part of a cherished American iconography. "Church, school and clubhouse - that's America to me," as the lyrics from the popular song put it.
I don't detect the same sort of sentimentality over here. Inside the classroom, British education looks pretty much like the American version - the differences remain at the cultural margins.
The true distinctions exist outside the classroom. When there are accusations of mediocrity, mismanagement or malfeasance, as there often are, American public schooling is presumed innocent. Here, it seems to me, state education, despite its evident success, bears a continual and debilitating burden of proof.
Kathryn Stearns is a London parent and former Washington Post leader writer