Don't mess with parents

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Modern parents are ravening beasts. We prowl, we howl, we stalk the educational jungle in a quest for the freshest, bloodiest meats of learning for our young. We are mafiosi, devious desperadoes. When it comes to primary schooling, you'd better not mess with us if you like having kneecaps.

This conclusion is forced on me not by my own experience - which was mild, since we lived near a village and the village school was great and our children accordingly went there. It is the result of years of horrified observation, topped by the BBC survey of half of the top 100 primaries in Britain.

The heads, perhaps relieved to get it off their chests, revealed that parents who want places not only work the appeals system to death and lie through their teeth over the small matter of their address, but try more aggressive tactics. They offer money: one family asked "Would pound;3,000 help the decision-making process?", while another offered pound;2,000 for the library, saying in smooth business-speak: "You gain and I gain".

One father, cutting to the chase, issued threats. In the best tradition of The Sopranos he informed Miss Griffiths of Parkview school in Derby that he knew which her car was, and where she lived. Which is no joke. Others, milder in temperament but equally determined, mention that as skilled professionals they could help no end with information technology.

Nobody has yet taken the Mafia route and threatened that if little Nellie doesn't get a place he will sabotage the IT department by using his skills to hack into it and leave porn pictures on the Year 7 website, but no doubt this will come. There is a kind of raw desperation abroad.

What should the outsider, the Martian observer, conclude from all this? Some good things, some bad. The good thing is educational awareness. Young and innocent readers may not believe this, but when I was growing up in the 1960s, no adult really thought about schools much (except teachers and Mrs Shirley Williams). The popular consensus was, "What the hell, school is school, gotta go through it, pack your satchel, boy."

For serious problems the more determined might wade in; but there was none of this hysterical stuff about Sats and reading ages and doing Kumon maths all weekend and jeopardising your chances of a Top Uni if you don't master IT at six. Despite the revolution of comprehensives, education was something of a backwater.

When Sir Keith Joseph started fretting about it in the late 1970s he was thought eccentric. The upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s had the nation blinking in surprise at the discovery that schools really matter, and that the quality of care and teaching inside them is critical to national life.

By the time Tony Blair said "Education, education, education!" he was pandering to, not leading, the national mood.

So perhaps it is encouraging, in a way, that parents now fight for the best school in a way that they previously would have fought for the best car or house.

It is all the more striking bec-ause these are primary schools: there was always a bit of tension at 11-plus, but most primaries were amiably considered much of a muchness. You did counting and reading and story time, you picked your nose a bit, did a nativity play and came home with macaroni stuck on paper plates. Now even the earliest years are racked with anxiety.

And yet, it's nice that people care .

The negative side of the new deal, of course, is the crazy terror that if you don't get into the very, very best school (assuming this is measurable) then you are doomed to a slum, a sink, a School of the Damned. Fail to make Paradise primary and you will be catapulted down to Hell Street mixed, where teachers' knuckles brush the ground, reading ages average out at three-and-a-half, and sullen lowlife brats inject themselves with Class A drugs and get pregnant at 10, if they're not kept too busy with the arson and burglary.

The real sufferers, quite unfairly, are the thousands of unsung primary schools which may not score "top" but which are good, kind, instructive, creative, jolly places to spend your first few years of education.

The puzzled Martian, pointing down at earth and shaking his tentacles at the frenzy of earthling parents, is probably saying: "Why are they so worried? Why not just try the nearest and see how it goes? Why do these people think that Daddy threatening to torch the head's car is the most positive start for their child's road to enlightenment?". We may yet look back on this as a time of mass hysteria, like the dancing-plagues of the Middle Ages.

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