It's a bear market out there

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Financial reporters often have to write "market reports", fashioning all the news, views, gossip and rumour that have come their way during the week into significant trends and indicators for the commodity in question.

With league tables - the annual school stock market report - just published, and with nursery vouchers, Office for Standards in Education reports, tabloid headlines and parental choice all making waves in the education sea, individual schools could soon end up rising and falling on the market as freely as cocoa futures or the Japanese yen. And any one of us could write a market report on the schools that we come across.

This was the raw material of my week in the educational free market.

Monday: to surburban London to interview the head of a school whose GCSE results have leapt up spectacularly this year. During the interview the local chair of education starts to fret for the future of the school. All this publicity, she fears, will see him headhunted out of the borough.

"It's like that in education, these days." she says. "Someone will try and poach him. Someone will make him an offer. You see."

Tuesday: the electrician arrives in the evening towing two small boys ("wife's at the osteopath").

Give the boys a biscuit, and in the course of making small talk, ask if they go to their local village school. Their father shoots a look across the room as if to say, "Lady, what planet are you coming from?".

They go to a school five miles away, he says, which is a right so-and-so for him, when his wife can't drive because of her back and he has to take them and bring them home again every day.

Wednesday: meet a local supply teachers who explains in graphic detail why the electrician's boys go elsewhere. The head is a wet weekend, apparently; the staff disheartened. One class has a boy who lies on the floor and screams. Their OFSTED, she says, was awful.

In full flow, she embarks on a rundown of schools all around: x has lots of travellers' children, y has a problem with the head, z used to be the school of local choice "but it's going off lately, I don't know why.

"You drive around and you think they'd be lovely little village schools, wouldn't you? But it isn't like that these days, not anywhere."

There is one school she'd put her children in, if she had children, she says, but it's becoming so popular that young families are buying houses in the village just to be sure of the place. "Imagine," she says, " at primary level."

Thursday: to lunch with some ladies who lunch. Many have recently settled children into secondary schools so the talk is of education or, rather, parking problems, uniforms and the suitability of the children's new friends.

Not a single mention of chemistry, information technology, or modern languages. No key stages, curriculum choices or standards of classroom teaching. On such flimsy foundations are schools' reputations built.

The only unhappy camper in the group seems to be a girl at a top-drawer boarding school ("at least five 'r's," says the mother, "in the word off") whose dorm-mates have been unkind about her lack of designer jeans.

"But she chose to go there," says the mother, hard-heartedly. "We tried to warn her, but would she listen?" Anyway, she adds, as much to herself as to us, it's part of an education, isn't it, learning to get on with all types? Which is exactly the sentiment expressed by friends in the inner city apprehensively putting their children into local comprehensives.

Friday: to visit just such an inner-city comprehensive, a school so far at the opposite end of the educational spectrum from the designer jeans school that it could be on another graph altogether.

For years the only adjective attached to this school was troubled. Now it has clawed itself back from the brink, results have climbed, and its students seem quite exceptionally orderly and diligent.

After years of blood, sweat and toil, the once near-empty school has regained ground in the neighbourhood and managed to fill three-quarters of its places, but it is still struggling to shake off history.

"As soon as we get people to come through the doors, then we've got them, " says a teacher, "but it's persuading them to come and have a look that's the hard thing."

Saturday: a brother-in-law, visiting from California, wants to know how to go about finding a school in England suitable for his 12-year old daughter with special needs. The family might return to live in the UK, but school is a major hurdle.

At her junior high school his daughter had her own full-time classroom aid, and while he knows she's unlikely to get this here, he needs to find a school sympathetic to trying to keep her in the mainstream.

It probably all depends, we say, on where you're going to live. But where we live, he says, will depend on finding the right school.

He says he's heard of a private school that sounds promising, and isn't there some sort of scheme under which the Government will pay your school fees if you can't afford to pay them yourself?

You'd better wait until after the next election, we say, before making any plans along those lines.

Sunday: a day with the papers, catching up with news from the wider educational world - The Ridings, Manton Junior, Bacup Fearns, bring back the cane, teacher shortages, the nation's moral vacuum, and the ubiquitous Nigel de Gruchy.

How does the market look from this perspective? Not exactly bullish.

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