Lost in a maze of our own choosing

27th October 2000 at 01:00
AT last, my moment of parent power has arrived. I am about to be an active consumer, free to exercise parental choice in the educational market place.

Like parents everywhere, I have forsaken autumn nights in to attend opening evenings to find a secondary school for my 10-year-old daughter.

This is what a decade of change was all about: offering, to borrow John Patten's phrase, "choice and diversity". Just think of the power. Like a juror, or a voter, I can listen to the blandishments and boasts, knowing my decision counts.

In my locality there is certainly diversity: grammar, secondary modern, comprehensive, specialist, beacon, single-sex, and co-ed.

So my wife, my daughter and I became full-time school visitors. We probably qualify as lay inspectors. We scanned brochures and league tables, attended open evenings, and day-time tours.

We saw much that was impressive. Good marks to teachers and pupils who spoke to my daughter not just to her parents. Top marks to the head who stood at the front door shaking hands with everyone, parents and pupils.

But I'm afraid it's the dunce's cap for those teachers who, when asked a simple question, replied with well-intentioned, but inappropriate, torrents of incomprehensible educational jargon. If teachers want the support of parents, they must use language parents understand.

Schools are very "on message" these days. Certain phrases were used heavily:

"well-disciplined", "belief in excellence", "zero tolerance". Yet the style of presentation, the selection of school highlights, and the role given to pupils varied enormously.

So come with me on a mini-tour of the schools. Let's start with school A.

It is an improving school but still suffers from public perception of its past poor record.

It tried ever so hard, maybe too hard. The pupil guides, keen Year 7s, were brightly-scrubbed and well-briefed. Was this a conscious strategy: did we get Year 7 because they were still in the first flush of excitement with secondary school or because they were better able to communicate with Year 6s like my daughter?

After the tour came the presentation. The style was formal. Carefully scripted talks from head boy, head girl and headteacher.

The underlying message: this is a school that has improved, and - just trust us - will improve further. The anxiety to impress was tangible.

By contrast, school B is a comprehensive in the neighbouring LEA but still close enough to feel the grammar school effect. It was much more laid back.

While A had a classical quartet, B went for a rock band. They were clearly chasing the pupil vote.

School B's guides were from Years 9 and 10: confident, relaxed and willing to talk about cons as well as pros. The head teacher's talk was informal and his tone was almost "this is what we are, take us or leave us". It was honest but it's easier to be laid-back when you are over-subscribed.

School C was an independent school for girls. Our guides this time were sixth-formers. They were confident, but not in the least prepared for the question: "so what are the bad things about this school?" Did this school's ethos suppress free-thinking or are there really no bad points?

The facilities and class sizes were superb but the biggest difference at school C, apart from the school ski team, was the prospective parents. All around me they were urgently name-dropping: "Oh, did I mention, my sons at Charterhouse" or "Of course, our first choice is St Paul's."

It was school D, a non-selective girls school, which had the best presentation. Pupils of all ages were involved in a brilliantly performed drama, which wittily compared progress through the school to an Olympic marathon. Instead of straight speeches we had hilarious, but informative, interviews between reporters and "runners" at various stages in the race from Year 7 to A levels.

It was a brilliant, pupil-led idea which appealed to everyone. You could see with your own eyes the diversity, humour, confidence, team-work and skills displayed by the pupils.

So now, after phoning a friend or two, we vote. But we don't actually choose the schools. They choose us on the basis of home-school distance, link primary school, entry test or ability to pay.

So instead of choosing and relaxing we must now apply and wait, nervously, to see which will take my daughter. What was that about parent power?

Mike Baker is the BBC's education


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