The boy was about eight, I guess—maybe a bit younger. He was standing by the double doors that lead out into the small car park, in some evident agitation. Squatting on her hunkers beside him, a female teacher was doing her best to calm him down.
“We can’t go out there. Mum’s gone. She’s going to come back in the afternoon to collect you…”
The headmaster saw me looking, as he led us past.
“Don’t worry about him: he’s a good kid. He’s just a bit fragile at the moment because things are difficult at home. Dad’s gone away.”
“No. Gone away.”
“Oh, you mean like—oh. Oh. Oh gosh. Gosh.”
I caught myself clasping my hands in front of my waist in unconscious imitation of the Prince of Wales touring a rehabilitation centre for former prisoners. “So, um—you were saying about the catchment area…”
Seldom have I felt more affrightedly middle-class as when touring north London primary schools. My daughter will be four next summer, which means we needed to get our schools application in by mid-January. By the time you read this, the die will be cast.
We live—having bought our house before we had children, and without a care to anything as far off as schooling—just a stone’s throw from the catchment area of two or three really good primary schools. And we have been doing our nuts about it.
The question of schooling brings out the hypocrite in all of us. Not to mention the curtain-twitcher, the control-freak, the sentimentalist and the prig. You have loved London’s melting pot of race and class, its macaronic lingo, its shifting streetscapes… and suddenly you find yourself, in the smallest and meanest part of your soul, panicking about how you’ll react if your four year old comes home from school and calls you “bruv.”
You go, essentially, mad. It’s a disease that spreads—like many fast-burning infections—especially readily in areas of high population density. The more numerous, supposedly right-on, white and middle class the sample population, the worse the effects. Islington is to schools madness like Victorian slums are to cholera. You are goaded to insanity by the hateful acquaintances who just happen to find themselves in the 400-square-metre catchment area of north London’s premier genius academy—“We’re just going to send little Hugo to the local school: we really believe in getting properly involved in the community.” You are given nervous tics by the sympathetic but pointedly grave face that the other dad at the nursery gate pulls when you mention the school into which you have the best chance of getting your kid. You are driven in circles by the purely hypothetical moral calculus, the unsolvable equation, involving your duties to your child, your duties to your fellow taxpayer, your duties to the community you live in.
We got so close—pen poised to sign on the dotted line close—to doing what many including me will find easy to see as contemptible: letting out our house in order to move into rental accommodation in the catchment area of the school down the road with an Outstanding rating from Ofsted.
It would cost us money we could ill afford. It would cause us two house-moves and 12 months of discomfort and anxiety between them. We would spend a year living at Point B and commuting 20 minutes every morning to drop our kids at the nursery next door to where we live now, aka Point A. Then we would return to live at Point A in order to spend the next God-knows-how-long commuting twenty minutes every morning to take our children to school at Point B. We would do so, what’s more, with a profoundly bad conscience. We’d spend a year hem-hemming and changing the subject when it came up at parties. Probably, we’d pretend to all our friends that we still lived at Point A.
For what? There was a point at which the madness passed—the fever, if you like, broke—and I thought: “Hang on. She’s going to be FOUR YEARS OLD.” Four. How bad can it be? The biggish local primary has a likeable new head and is rated Good. That’s not Outstanding, but it’s not toddlers holding those blunt knives you use for playdough to each others’ throats. It’s not reverse literacy. It’s not fortnightly outbreaks of dengue fever.
Nursery Gate Dad, with your face of doom: how do you know it’s so bad? You’re just parroting the on dit. Nobody you know has ever sent their children there: it’s bad by the circular logic that it’s the place that nobody sends their kids, because all the people who don’t send their kids there say it’s bad. (Which is, inasmuch as it actually is bad, probably why it’s bad.)
And, for that matter, how good can it be? If she ends up going to St Gustav’s Academy For Nice Boys And Girls are we to expect that she’ll come out translating Racine and offering well-turned apercus on macroeconomics? Will she start half-inching dad’s copy of Prospect? Christ alive. I doubt it. Probably all she’ll get is an anxiety disorder. Someone told me that in Sweden they don’t bother teaching their kids to read until they’re 10, and they have the highest literacy rate in Scandinavia, or something.
There: that’s me justified to myself. We’re going to resist the pushy-parent middle-class groupthink. We’re going to put the local schools in order of preference, like it says on the form, and let fate take its course. Next year, after the first “bruv,” I expect we’ll move house.