Good enough for other people's children but not for mine

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Teachers who opt not to send their child to the school where they work risk accusations of hypocrisy and disloyalty. But doesn't everyone want the best for their family?

There are several reasons why Marianne Watson* did not like the school where she used to teach. There was the policy of paying special attention to the children of important figures in the community in preference to "ordinary" pupils. There was also the expectation that staff would keep an ear out for gossip about the school and report back to the head.

But it was the hypocrisy of staff and senior management when it came to their own children that eventually made Ms Watson leave. "The school is very near leafy lanes and the staff in many cases lived nearby," she says. "But without exception they sent their children to rival schools with better reputations."

Even the chair of governors sent his daughter to one of the nearby schools in Leeds without ever acknowledging that problems existed at his school. "I could maybe have stomached them not sending their children there, but it was then the persistent glossing over of the school's shortcomings that really set my teeth on edge," says Ms Watson.

The public image of the school's success was very different from what was said in private. "The staff were quite open in the staffroom about the fact that they wouldn't expose their children to the undisciplined behaviour that was endemic in the school," Ms Watson adds.

Teachers can be fiercely loyal, and may sing the praises of their school and defend their pupils to anyone who will listen. But they also face the ultimate test in putting their money where their mouth is: is their school good enough for their own children? Like it or not, a decision about where to send your children can become a reflection on what you think of the school and your colleagues.

"If it is good enough to work in, if you consider yourself and the rest of the staff as good enough, if you are working for the best for all the students there, why would you not think it is good enough for your own children?" says secondary teacher Celtica, a member of the TES Connect online forums. The implication is that you think the school is good enough for other people's children, but yours deserve something better.

Teachers are not the only ones to face this dilemma. Politicians have ultimate responsibility for our education system, and where they opt to educate their children has become a political statement as much as a private choice. So when David Cameron said in July that he was "terrified" about finding a good state secondary for his children, it was seen as a damning lack of confidence in London's schools.

Labour politicians have it worse. As perceived champions of state schools, Labour MPs can expect a rough ride if they choose private schools, as left-winger Diane Abbott found during the summer's Labour leadership contest. Her refusal to answer questions on her decision to send her son to a top London independent provided some of the most memorable moments of the campaign.

Parents may sympathise with Ms Abbott's agonies, but politicians are expected to improve the quality of state schools, not dodge them. It comes with the job that they should practise what they preach; anything else is perceived as hypocritical. But should teachers be held to the same standards?

It is teachers working at comprehensive schools, often in challenging areas and with poor academic results or behaviour, who face the toughest decision. Even the staunchest supporters of state education recognise the vast difference between schools - even between comprehensives - and will want the best for their child. But passionate defenders of the state system are the ones most likely to feel pangs of guilt about the double standards they apply to their pupils and their children.

"Although there are some truly wonderful individual teachers (at my previous school), generally the standard of education is far too poor," says one inner-city English teacher, who asked not to be named. "Too many excuses are made for too many categories of children and consequently there is an unnecessary level of underachievement."

This secondary teacher only confessed to staff that her children attended a different school when she was leaving, as she was too ashamed to tell them at the time. She also failed to mention that she told her Year 11s that she was glad they were leaving for a different sixth form. "Disloyal? Yes," she acknowledges. "Fair? Yes."

Steve Baker, headteacher of Lipson Community College in Plymouth, acknowledges that value judgments are made about where teachers send their children, even though it is a private matter.

"We are in a value-driven, faith-neutral school that signs up to the values of the International Co-operative Alliance (a non-governmental organisation that represents co-operatives worldwide)," he says. "It would therefore be rather odd in those circumstances not to show solidarity and send your child to the independent sector."

Although Lipson was rated outstanding in its latest Ofsted report, it serves a socially disadvantaged area and is surrounded by single-sex grammar schools. But for Mr Baker, a teacher's decision on where to send their children to school is hugely revealing about their commitment to state education.

"If you're aligning your values to state education, clearly there are certain statements to be made there in terms of how you make your own decisions in life," he says. "If, in a letter of application, you are extolling the virtues of egalitarianism and then send your own child to a selective school, I think there would be interesting questions to be followed up on."

Lipson also aims to make it easier for staff to send their children there. An after-school study area means teachers who take part in extra- curricular activities do not have to worry about who is looking after their children. "To go to another school to pick up their children might not be convenient," says Mr Baker. "Staff here know they don't have to race across the city at rush hour."

But choosing where to work may be as much to do with where teachers can get a job as their principles. And in such a situation, pragmatism rather than ideology may be the order of the day.

Alice Fisher is an ICT teacher at a comprehensive in the South East. At the same time, she helps pay the fees for her goddaughter, Anna*, to attend a nearby independent school.

"While our results are good for our intake - we get 59 per cent A* to B - and the teachers are undoubtedly dedicated, I feel that a parent who cares about their children and has the resources to do so should try to place them in the best school they can," she says.

A school may be doing well and exceeding expectations, but if a parent does not think their child will be given the best education possible, it is only natural that they would send them elsewhere, she says. Even if the parent also happens to be a teacher.

During her PGCE year, Ms Fisher did a placement at an independent school and felt there was a completely different ethos and attitude to learning. Now going in to her fourth year at school, her goddaughter has flourished.

"She can speak two languages to a very good standard, her practical knowledge of the sciences is already at the level I would hope from some of our A-level students and her knowledge of the world around her is far greater," says Ms Fisher. "I am certain she would not have achieved so much in a normal secondary school." Perhaps most importantly, "she still loves going there".

Even though she is not the parent, Ms Fisher still went through all the deliberations and worries faced by Year 6 parents when choosing a secondary school. Anna's parents are atheists and did not want their daughter to attend a faith school. They also considered moving house to get into what they considered a better catchment area.

"We decided that it would be cheaper and more effective to send her to an independent school, where the quality of teaching and standards of behaviour were much higher," says Ms Fisher.

Classroom teachers, more than anyone else, are fully aware of where a school's weaknesses lie, and this is often an issue for teachers who want their own children to go elsewhere. It is effectively a lack of faith in colleagues.

One secondary teacher on the TES online forums says this is his main concern about sending his child to his school, though he feels guilty even thinking it. "There is an issue with knowing who the weak teachers are," says Resource Finder.

"Most schools, no matter how good, have some (weak teachers). What if your child were in that class? It is scary. At least at another school you do not really know."

Yet many of the teachers at Alice Fisher's school send their children to independent or grammar schools and discuss it openly in the staffroom.

"I realise that some people seem to be ashamed of wanting to give their children access to the best education possible but I would have no problem with telling my colleagues that my child is attending another school," Ms Fisher says.

It is a decision that should be based on what is best for the child, and the fact that the parent is also a teacher should not be held against them, she adds. "Ideally every child should have this opportunity, but the reality is that independent schools will inevitably offer an education of a far higher quality."

Headteachers come under more scrutiny than classroom colleagues for their personal and professional decisions. What they wear, the car they drive and, in particular, where they educate their children, all reflect on the school. "It does speak of a lack of confidence in the school if you don't," says David Shaw, vice-principal at Grace Academy Darlaston in the West Midlands. "It is almost as if it is good enough for other people's children, but not for my son or daughter."

In an education system where more money buys more choice, the dilemma is exacerbated for headteachers: their higher salary means they are in a better position to pay school fees. "There is a perception that people who are at that level may have more access to resources so they can make those decisions," says Mr Shaw.

The irony is that while they are better placed to send their children to fee-paying schools, they are also more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. If a headteacher sends their children elsewhere it not only shows what they think of the school but also reflects badly on their ability to bring about improvements.

For Ms Watson, the decision by her headteacher and chair of governors to send their children elsewhere was the most damning sign of their refusal to take responsibility for the school's low standards, and in particular its behavioural problems. "It seemed exposure to loutish behaviour was OK for other people's children, but not for theirs," she says.

There were some protestations that the head's decision was intended to spare their child the embarrassment of being taught by a parent, but Ms Watson believes this was a smokescreen. "They didn't send their children elsewhere because it might cause professional boundary problems, but because our school was a hell hole," she says.

But many school leaders do aspire to send their own children to the school where they work. It is a vote of confidence in both the staff and the school, says Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and former headteacher of St Cyres School in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. For him, although his children did not live in the catchment area, it was a litmus test of his headship.

"I have used that as my criteria for whether the school is good enough," he says. "If I had felt that I would not be happy for my children to be there, I would have addressed that issue."

The same principle applied to his leadership team. "We expected our school to be good enough for our own children and we are no different from the other parents," he says. "That is where we are accountable."

But he acknowledges that each teacher bases their decision about where to send their child to school on a number of factors, such as the needs of the individual child, the proximity of the school to their home, how the child would react to their parent being on the staff and where other children at the primary school are going.

For this reason, he believes heads and teachers should be under no obligation to send their child to their school. "I don't think there should be any moral pressure," he says. "It is a personal decision that teachers have to make in consultation with their children."

On the other hand, a school boasting a member of the leadership team's children among its pupils can send a strong signal to other parents. "Our deputy sent his children to our school, and we used to tell other parents about it as a message of how we thought the school was doing," says Mr Lightman.

At Lipson Community College, Mr Baker also considers it a good sign. "From a head's perspective, it is wonderful when teaching and non-teaching staff show their support for the school," he says. "There is no greater reward than that. But I don't think people are under any pressure to."

Teachers find choosing a school for their children just as difficult as any other parent. It may be seen as an intrusion into their personal life that no other profession - save politicians - face. But there is no getting away from the fact that a teacher's choice of school for their child can also be a telling indication of their views on where they work, how they rate their colleagues and just how firm their principles are.

No one can expect teachers to sacrifice their children's education for the sake of their principles, but it can still be a source of embarrassment. It is no surprise that the "where is your child going to school" conversation is one that many teachers will try to avoid for as long as possible

* Names have been changed.

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