Middle-Class Mum will not be beaten

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Meet me. Middle- Class Mum. I colonise schools, just like the Sutton Trust says I do. Here is a list of my sins: I have walked my children to a distant primary school rather than send them to the one closest to home. I have later removed them from primary school altogether and put them in a private school. I have inspected and rejected countless secondary schools and moved the family a hundred miles to the catchment area of a school I finally deemed good enough. I am greedy. I want the best out of the system and am prepared to use all my middle-class wealth, mobility and know-how to get it.

And what you need to know about me is that I am here to stay. After me will come more Middle- Class Mums - and yet more after that. We are part of the natural order. All parents want the best for their children, and those of us who are free to do so will always look for the best of the best - remember how Tony Blair shipped his kids from one side of the capital to the other to get what he wanted.

Which is why the proposals in last week's white paper, all the banding and busing, the ballooning of good schools and the abandoning of bad ones, fly in the face of nature and are never going to achieve much beyond more school-related traffic jams and a massive bureaucratic headache. Level the school playing field and new bumps will always appear. If there are three excellent secondary schools in an area but one of those gets a zippy new head, who creates more after-school activities, sets up an exchange programme with Japan, and gets three kids into Oxbridge, then within months the vortex of local gossip will deem this the "only" school worth getting your kids into. Banding and busing will make it harder, but Middle-Class Mums don't let little things like that get in their way. If they spot a benefit for their children, they will move mountains with their bare hands to get at it.

Meanwhile, what about the other end of the spectrum? The parents whose lives are so chaotic they will never get up in time to make sure their children catch the bus. The ones who are struggling so hard to survive they don't have the time or energy to think about school choice. The ones who need their older kids to get home quickly to look after the younger ones.

Or those who don't seem to care. Where will their children go? Yup, you've got it. To the god-awful sink schools that will catch the dregs left behind.

Two facts about education remain stubbornly immutable. One is that, by and large, schools do as well as the areas they serve. And the second is that the single most important factor in any child's educational success is the support they get from home. Which means that while Middle-Class Mums might go looking for the best schools, they, in turn, play a big part in making these schools even better.

The white paper is right to try to break these social spirals but wrong about how to do it. You can't make parents behave as you think they ought to. You can't ignore the geography of daily life or expect schools to flourish and contract according to demand as if they were no more significant than nightspots or fashion chains.

In short, you can't improve children's life chances by rearranging school structures or fiddling with admissions policies. (And as for parent councils - who in the world thinks they're going to work?) Generations of planners have tinkered with both of these and every time they have done so, Jgood things - like thriving comprehensives in socially-mixed areas and ability banding in London secondary schools - have been thrown out along with the bad, so that the mix has ended up just as mixed as ever.

What you can do is concentrate on what happens in the classroom: train great teachers and pay them well. Give them good leaders and well-resourced schools to work in. And do it for all schools, in all areas, with extra help for the schools which are most in need.

It's simple and elegant, and plenty of people have been telling the Government so. But does it listen? No, it doesn't. It thinks it knows better. It thinks it can beat Middle-Class Mum. Don't hold your breath while it tries.

Peter Wilby, opposite

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