Sugar and spice and a chic village school

4th April 1997 at 01:00
This rural idyll, what a timeless scene it is. Along the hedgerow straggle Ned and Marigold, Gabriel and last of all little Dorcas who is gathering wild flowers for her teacher. The sturdy lads with ruddy cheeks have clothes too big for them and each little girl wears a droopy floral dress with pinny and petticoats. At nine the village schoolmistress rings the bell. With chatter and clatter the pupils line up and file in. Little Dorcas presents her simple bouquet. Later Miss Farmer, who can name every plant for miles around, will get her older charges to identify each flower, using a book.

It could all have happened a hundred years ago, yet the story is still the same. The families who will this very evening embrace young Ned and Marigold, Gabriel and Dorcas have moved out of the city. The children's addresses - on school computer, not register - are Smithy, Miller's Cottage and Manse, each one with "The Old" and a Range Rover in front of it. At his christening, little did Granny dream that Ned would ever darken the door of a state school. But now her family and their friends are sending their offspring there in droves, at primary level at least. The trend is fuelled by the absence of catchment areas, and rocketing fees in the independent sector. The incomers have arrived and now the village school is fashionable.

How does the concerned parent identify a country school that is truly chic? First, find your village. Mining communities and industrial eyesores need not apply. Beautiful counties are top of the form. Indeed the stunning scenery of the Highlands and islands has long attracted white settlers and the talk is that their fecundity has served to keep open one and two-teacher schools. An air of prosperity is another necessary ingredient. Families do not desert Fulham or Georgian Edinburgh to move to a rundown environment blighted by despair. Even if there is poverty and unemployment in rural Britain, much of it is hidden behind picture postcard beauty. Appearances are important and a quaint cottage with charming garden seems to lack only an Aga to make it perfect.

Back to school where unusual names for children are a strong indicator of chic. The class list's finest ornaments might be Amethyst and Calypso for girls or Clovis and Sholto for the boys. If anything, these are on the ordinary side. Village teachers come across names they have never heard of. So obscure are some that it is not unknown for a boy to be enrolled as a girl, or vice versa.

The integration of children with special needs into its small community is one of the hallmarks of the magnet school. Let one unfortunate farm child suffer from dyslexia, let the capable school ma'am cater for this or any other disability and the news spreads through the country and beyond. Naturally, parents want the best, the most appropriate education for their children, all the more so for the fragile ones. Rich people can pay for the specialisation, but it is the middle class who are most skilled at finding the right school, however remote.

Less high-minded but in one way more noble considerations motivate some parents. Nowadays the old landed families, the monied and the well connected, entrust their offspring to the nearest school. Who knows to what ducal birthday parties, grand country houses and, in the fullness of time, altars of private chapels young Marigold and Dorcas might one day be invited? Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, but Charity's mother vaunteth herself shamelessly in launching her small daughter on the troubled sea of networking.

Not unrelated to the above is the social standing of the child's emergency contact. In the nature of things, an emergency contact is to be found in the home, and not away at work. The Sloane mummies might be on their tennis courts or at their stables, but there are such things as mobile phones and nannies to relay messages.

In sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain, the gazing rustics marvelled at the schoolmaster "and still the wonder grew, that one small head could carry all he knew." Now the incomers look at Miss Farmer and their wonder grows that she can manage on Pounds 25,000 a year. Miss Farmer, in her turn, regards the arrivistes with wry amusement. Just after four, the schoolroom door swings open. Another uptown mother introduces her five-year-old. "What lovely babies you have," says Miss Farmer, peeking into the pram. She addresses her newest recruit. "And what are their names?" "Swain and Damsel," replies the child.

Collapse of stout party.

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