Take a potshot at Prada and polenta problem

11th April 2003 at 01:00
I have never met Tim Lott. I know he's a writer and journalist who's just published a novel called Rumours of a Hurricane (great title) and contributes a regular column to the London Evening Standard. From his and other people's writings I understand that, like his mother before him, he suffers from clinical depression periodically and has written a thoughtful book on the subject - and that he has recently taken a vow to do far less work in the interests of home-life balance. He sounds like an interesting guy.

But if I did meet him (unlikely, because I've never been to Notting Hill, the area of west London where he lives), I think I might smack him in the eye.

This intemperate reaction is the result of a column he wrote last week.

Given the time of year, it was about - what else? - the dreadful agonies experienced by middle-class London parents over secondary school choice.

The season of Lent seems to be the signal for acres of self-serving newsprint about this appalling dilemma.

I have to admit, though, that the real depths of whinge were plumbed in last Friday's Standard, with a piece about the "war" between working mothers and the stay-at-home variety.

This featured journalist Deirdre Fernand bewailing the fact that a self-righteous full-time mother at the "smart nursery in Kensington" where she sends her children had refused to socialise with her - after learning that she spends her days in an office rather than hot-housing her children at home. Surely Deirdre can solve her problem easily - just avoid smart nursery schools, and the people who frequent them, like the plague. But to return to Mr Lott. He is a successful journalist, so he is good at phrase-making. He moans - amusingly - that London schools are either snobby and horribly expensive, or dirt-poor and full of discipline problems.

There is nothing, he says, between "Prada and Poundshop". What is there for normal people who simply want their child to have a sound education at their local school? The tragedy, he says, is that there is no such Third Way.

Rubbish. All over London, large numbers of children of all social classes - even those from families who prefer polenta to Pot Noodles - are getting a decent education at their local school. Has Tim Lott any idea of the damage he is inflicting by articles like this? A good read, sure, but shallow, irresponsible, and giving an entirely false impression.

I fear that his whole argument is paving the way for a gut-wrenching decision next year to send his nine-year-old daughter (clearly the apple of his eye - as is true for all of us who have or have had nine-year-old daughters) to private school. He describes the terrifying-looking adolescents slouching past his gate on their way to the local comp. For God's sake, Tim, get a grip. All 15- year-old boys look like spaced-out aliens to the fathers of prepubescent girls - it's what they're for.

Tim Lott is, of course, right to argue that social divisions in London are shocking, and that private and state-school kids inhabit different worlds.

But this divide does not arise simply from economic inequality, but from individual self-interested decisions made by parents such as himself.

Some London comprehensives and their pupils do have dreadful problems, but thousands get an excellent education in perfectly normal schools, as the recent A-level tables make clear. And when they don't - well, intelligent people such as Tim Lott ought to give some solid thought as to how they become part of the solution, not the problem.

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