Spring is a tough time for parents. 3 March was 'National Offer Day' for secondary school places. 16 April is National Offer Day for primary school places. Parents around the country receive email notifications and letters through the post with news that will certainly impact on their family's day to day life and possibly, their child's life chances. Yes, that nail-biting moment; which infant, junior, primary or secondary school their child will be attending from September.
It's a big deal. Because while we all go, "Oh it's OK, different kids suit different schools" or "It'll all come out in the wash", it's more complicated than that isn't it? It's not just Emily likes football so she needs a place at a primary school with a playing field. Sam likes drama so he should go to an Academy specialising in Performing Arts. Schools these days do have widely differing specialisms and facilities. But also, they may rank very differently in terms of the standard of teaching they are able to provide.
I'm not talking league tables here. I'm not even saying, Ofsted always get it right. Sometimes "good" schools seem a bit more grounded than "outstanding" ones for example. But we can't argue that it's OK for some children to go to schools with poor leadership, big class sizes and high staff turn-over. Places where whatever their interests or natural talents, kids are probably not going to get much inspiration or guidance. Or is it OK so long as they're not ours?
By saying, "I just want the best for my children", does that give you the right to step on other peoples'? To buy that house in the ever-shrinking catchment area to make sure your kids get in? To tutor them so they can pass entrance exams or the 11+? Or sign in at church every Sunday while your bored kid plays on his Nintendo DS? Or maybe even opt out of the state system entirely - disown your local school so your kids can go somewhere with an equestrian centre and a choral society?
Because it is about life chances. If you go to a struggling school be it in an inner city borough or out in the sticks, you probably won't be particularly engaged or inspired. You have to fight against the odds - whether that be poor quality teaching, challenging behaviour, an ever changing cast of teachers or deteriorating facilities. These are the things which affect aspiration and exam results. And you need your grade C in GCSE Maths and English for pretty much anything nowadays.
On the other side, we know that public school educated people dominate the upper echelons of UK society; politics, sport and the arts (the Guardian). Public schools seem to produce a different breed - they talk differently, walk differently, they even seem taller than everyone else! They do Latin and Greek, rowing and rugby. They dominate the cabinet and the Olympic medal board. Then there's selective state schools. 29% of Labour MPs went to grammar schools (The Sutton Trust). These would be all well and good for social mobility if wealthier kids weren't tutored... but anyway, testing aptitude in a couple of narrow areas doesn't seem fair either. Where does that leave people who were told they were failures at the age of 11?
Defining children according to wealth or merit in specific subjects sits very uncomfortably with me. What about supporting kids' interests, building on enthusiasm? What about maintaining friendships between kids of different social backgrounds rather than keeping them in separate worlds? Isn't it heartbreaking when children are separated from their best friends - told they can't go to the school they want to because it's oversubscribed and they don't live close enough, aren't clever enough, aren't rich enough? Or is that just the real world? "Get used to it, kid".
It's not just about what is best for our kids in the narrow sense. What may help them clamber over their comrades to a better education or more opportunities. It is what is best for them in terms of the society they will live in. What is the point of generating this two-tiered world in the UK, where the middle and upper classes have literally no clue what life is like for anyone else? Without a comprehensive education, how can we hope for a comprehensive society?
Come September, like everyone else, I want my baby to be starting at a good school where she feels happy, safe and engaged. Maybe, she'll even spot a few of her mates. Right now, I don't think that is going to cause a huge ethical dilemma. Lucky us. When she is 10, we will face a regressive 11+ style system. Then we need to be honest with ourselves. How much will wanting what is best for our children compromise our principles and our dreams for a better society?