Quest for school places has gone monkey nuts

13th November 2009 at 00:00

Parents might be punished if they cheat to get their kids into the school they want. Pushy parents in court? How I wept.

A study by the chief schools adjudicator revealed parents lying about their main residence. "Flipping" properties to steal from others is wrong for MPs, it seems, but spookily sanctified by parenthood.

These parents blame government for not providing enough good schools. Right. I've just stolen your car, but it's the Transport Secretary's fault.

Anyway, a good school teaches you that stealing is wrong. On the BBC website, some of the most astute comments on the admissions issue come from children. "Parents should not lie because it is unfair," one wrote.

I always watch nature programmes before a parents' evening. The natural world is full of pushy parents. Magpies shove other birds' young out of their nests and eat them. And there is a blue caterpillar that practises deception that ends in tears for young ants. And some cats kill other cats' kittens.

But monkeys help to raise the young of other members of their species: it is called "alloparenting". Human primate teachers do a lot of it. It has been claimed that human evolution depended on alloparenting. Professor Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues in her book, Mothers and Others, that "we could not have evolved except as co-operative breeders".

Humans have a long childhood. Alloparenting enables them to survive and to understand other humans, she says. Our capacity to collaborate and empathise at complex levels is what differentiates us from other animals.

Schools are run by alloparents helping huge numbers of young - a tough job when some parents think they're in a cat-eat-kitten world. Yet are they really saving their own young from disaster? Professor Hrdy concedes that human mothers are "fiercely competitive" for "local clout" and "resources for their children". She says "such status-quests are primate-wide propensities". Status-quests? Hmm.

What can we do with these thieving parents? Other parents often say, "I know how they feel." Yes, that's what human primates do: they empathise. Yet it is hard to find a culture that condones stealing from a child. Prison for the parents is now unlikely, and would unfairly punish their children. Fines would be better: they could fund school bursaries. To prevent future theft of school places, perhaps we should publish photos of the children who are genuinely entitled to them. It might stir some empathy. It's harder to step on other people's kids when you've seen their faces.

Schools should keep lists of parents who lied to get a place. A discreet pork pie icon next to the name of offending parents would warn teachers. But there's no need to worry about the generous parents who come with us on school trips - these are alloparents. No, it's the ones who told porkies who need watching. They squished other pupils and might do so again.

Meanwhile, what message do their offspring get? The world is one giant teat to suckle them alone . "Miles didn't get the part in the play. What are you going to do about it?"

If they were cats, we could neuter them. But it's not a perfect world.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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