Like so many other parents, I am in the throes of doing the rounds of secondary schools. And like every other parent encountered in playground or street or windswept park, I have become obsessed by the subject.
We are maddened by the necessity of making this important decision on another's behalf, goaded by the spectre of "choice", whipped to a frenzy by the spectacle of ever-increasing numbers of other parents similarly afflicted.
At many of the schools I have visited in this reasonably affluent London suburb, there have been easily more than 2,000 visitors in the two or three hours of the open evening. Many of them have come from so far away that they cannot possibly have a hope of getting their child in, for, as it says in the LEA's ever-so-helpful booklet, "the government offers every parent the choice of a school for their child. This does not mean that you will get the school of your choice." Exactly so.
My son is a lively sparky boy of ten and a half - the middle one in the family. He loves drama, art, music and creative writing, is dead keen on all sports, has recently got interested in maths and is an obsessive pursuer of all his hobbies, whether these be making the definitive collection of POGS, constructing a hide in the garden, or designing weird computer games on slips of paper.
I want a school in which his creativity will flourish and his quirkiness not be punished. He also likes girls and hates getting up in the morning.
So what have we seen? Discounting the 90-per cent white Guild School - a former voluntary aided grant maintained school with excellent results ("Mum, you know how I hate getting up in the morning, I'd never manage it") - and the gloom of one local comp, Depression Heights, of which the main virtue, according to the headteacher, seemed to be winning the award for cleanest school in the borough two years running (Great, but what about the GCSE results?) here, below, is the running.
Grant-maintained, mixed grammar school with sixth form. Admissions: 180 per year on non-verbal reasoning test and headteachers' report. Ruthless in its selection for the sixth form.
Subjects: Maths: high-fliers do GCSE early, all get A* and go on to do A-level modules early; languages: four modern plus Latin at GCSE (plus mother tongues).
Extras: school magazine: yes; foreign trips: we've got'em; extra-curricular activities: numerous.
Sport and arts : keen but lacks sports hall and swimming facilities, good fields; drama has two plays a year; music: 400-plus learn an instrument, three orchestras, bands.
Premises: grotty in parts, oak-panelled library, loadsa computers. Own field centre in countryside.
Teaching style: straight down-the-line, go-for-it academic.
Kids: Nose-rings, ear-rings, all ethnic groups.
My child says: "I want to go here, you can do so much."
I say: "1,500 are trying for 180 places. Who doesn't want selective education?" BOYS OWN HALL
Single sex, grant maintained comprehensive
Admissions: 180, can select 10 per cent for ability in music or sport
Results: slightly above national average - 45 per cent five A*-C GCSEs; outstanding in science
Subjects: maths: high-fliers either take exam early or do extension, many do A-level; separate sciences available; languages: three offered at GCSE but with limited choices Extras: school mag: only for younger children "who do creative writing"; foreign trips: minimal; extra-curricular activities: mostly sport but also the odd spot of chess, model railways and history
Sport and arts: hall, fields, we do it all, bar swimming, and the kids love it; drama: couldn't find it, "not our sort of thing"; music: 150 learn instruments
Premises: grotty but with history
Teaching style: How many people said to us, "This is a boys' school, of course, so ..."
Kids: friendly, polite, unafraid to criticise, like a laugh
My child says: "The sport's good"
I say: "Why don't they paint the place?"
Independent, former grammar school.
Admissions: 150 including 50 via the prep department. Exams and interviews Results: major league, top ten.
Subjects: 40 per cent of 6th formers do maths; languages: can choose from four modern plus Latin.
Extras: foreign trips: every year has options (but pricey); school mag: yes; extra-curricular activities: 48 and counting from bridge to meditation to zen archery.
Sport and arts: hall, fields, pool, rock-climbing wall, county teams etc; drama: scene set in spotlit studio, teacher sitting in darkness with note on dimmer board: "this room has been dramatised for you"; three plays a year; music: nearly 500 learn instrument, special concert hall, orchestras, bands, ensembles.
Premises: set in leafy acres, no expense spared, technology up-to-date.
Teaching style: academic, challenging, lots of individual attention.
Kids: confident, articulate, polite, very jokey, large ethnic mix.
My child says: "Yes please".
I say: "This is what money can buy"
Grant-maintained comprehensive, mixed
Admissions: 200, now over-subscribed from other boroughs
Results: 25 per cent five A*-C GCSEs, A-levels on collegiate system Subjects: Maths: best school subject at GCSE but no provision for high fliers; poor A-levels; languages: two
Extras: foreign trips: embryonic programme; school mag: soon; extra-curricular activities: in lower school flourishing but seem to drop off.
Sport and arts: hall and grounds, no swimming; drama: try hard; music: 80 learn instruments.
Premises: being refurbished, feel pleasant,
Teaching style: child-centred, optimistic, stress ability
Kids: younger ones dead keen, older ones on fashion parade despite uniform, ethnic mix wider than area and celebrated
My child says: "There is shit on the walls and door of the toilet. I will not go here."
I say: "The head says the school is improving fast but I see what you mean."
NICE NEIGHBOURHOOD SCHOOL
LEA mixed comprehensive
Results: 60-plus per cent five A*-C GCSEs; A-levels on collegiate system and in school, do pretty well
Subjects: Maths: high-fliers extended; languages: three plus mother-tongues (but choice is difficult); school mag: "We prefer to help the children understand journalism by analysing periodicals"
Extras: foreign trips: yes; extra-curricular activities: many, well-organised
Sport and arts: great facilities, no swimming; drama: two plays, keen staff and students; music: 180 learn instruments, with an orchestra and ensembles
Premises: purpose-built and very attractive, American high-school style, lovely library
Teaching style: child-centred, a bit "old-style lefty", dedicated, not overly academic
Kids: somewhat cheeky but fun
My child says: "I like it"
I say:"We're too far away to benefit from its exclusively middle-class catchment area."
TURF WARS HIGH
LEA mixed comprehensive
Results: 18 per cent get five A*-C GCSE; A-levels on collegiate system; "one girl got three As last year, that's quite exceptional, isn't it?" (all others Cs or below)
Subjects: maths: do Smile (which mathematicians hate); languages: two plus mother tongues; mag: no
Extras: foreign trips: day only; extra-curricular activities: art-based yes Sports and arts : excellent - astroturf, halls, gym, fields elsewhere, big steel fences around everything; drama: lots in purpose-built theatre;
music: 200 learn instrument
Premises: half totally grotty, half rebuilt after fire
Kids: wary, inner-city mix of sharp and bewildered, ability as evidenced in work at low level, discipline and order problems, ethnic mix huge
Teaching style: hard-working, stressed-out, eyes in the back of heads
My child says: "Oh Mum"
I say: "Someone I know works there. She said to me, 'You're not thinking of this school as a parent are you? Don't'."
Well, those are the choices. I have filled in the form but I haven't posted it yet and no, I'm not going to tell you what I've chosen. That might bring bad luck - and luck is what we need.