If you go the local school you will become a postman. My son came home one day and told me this. He had heard it from his school friend, who had heard it from his mum, who'd heard it from a neighbour... And so it goes on: the endless rumour mill about the local comprehensives. In the playground at my children's primary school, the stories almost always seemed to be negative.
But when I talked to parents who had sent their children to these same schools, I got a different answer. The teachers were mainly good. Their kids were happy. And whenever I met these children, they seemed secure and confident.
It occurred to me there was an information gap. At school open days prospective parents can't always ask the questions they really want to. There isn't the time and the school's doing a PR job. So they go home, then chat among other increasingly anxious parents. And the whole cycle of tittle tattle starts all over again.
Meet the Parents
is an attempt to demystify. I felt what primary school parents really needed was the chance to discuss their concerns with other parents who had put their trust in these secondary schools. Even better, let’s ask those parents to bring along their children to join them on the panel. Let’s go back to original sources, as it were. Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Next I approached the head of Yerbury primary school in North London where my three children are pupils. She agreed to host three informal evening sessions. We approached heads and parents from all five local non-selective state schools. About twenty emails later the whole thing was fixed for September/October of the following term. The idea was that people could go to the secondary school open events, then go to the Meet the Parents sessions to ask all their unanswered questions.
It was a moving moment when people arrived for the very first evening. Brave were the parents who'd come from the school with the poorest reputation. One mother told how her son had done just fine: he took 14 GCSEs , getting an A or A* for them all. Spine-tingling was the moment when one of them said calmly to the assembled parents: “If all of you sent your children to this school, we wouldn't have the divisive situation we are in now”.
Most of the questions were directed at the children themselves. There was a palpable hunger to speak to them. The most common question: are you being stretched? Over to them: yes, we get constant monitoring. As one of the children quietly put it: “I feel I have made progress and am doing well now.” Schools in London are getting their act together – as the big FT survey last year concluded. Then there's the report last month from two universities on state school pupils doing better at degree level than students from private schools.
Meet the Parents wasn't all positive: one parent said he had no idea what his daughter did at school. One pupil said the sport at his school was rubbish. You could sense the audience wanted more of this - not to back up the negative rumours, but because they wanted the truth. The great thing about having pupils take part is that they are naturally inclined to tell it how it is.
Inevitably, the parents who agreed to talk on the panel were largely supportive of their school. But the shocking truth was they meant it. Some of these parents had the money to tutor their children for selective schools or to go private. Yet they were backing the local schools not out of any kind of sixties' idealism: they had concluded the teachers were good and there was a culture of discipline and learning. And they’d decided that just because private schools cost money, that doesn’t make them better.
So did the sessions make any difference to the choices of the Year 5 and 6 parents whom we invited (next time I'd like to invite all parents, since they start worrying so early)? It's hard to get such concrete information, but I feel it made them less inclined to write off the most derided school.“I will now definitely visit this school” was one comment on the feedback forms I sent out afterwards. Another parent said she would no longer look at any private schools in the area.
The main sentiment was one of reassurance. Hearing first-hand information was what parents craved. And no wonder – the whole point about academies and free schools, for example, is that they are all so individual. So how can you possibly know what a particular school is really like without hearing from children and parents at the school itself? If we had these kinds of schools in our area, I would have no reservations about inviting them to a Meet the Parents event. As research earlier this year concluded, parents are increasingly confused by the many choices now out there. Meet the Parents can only help.
Above all, our evenings were about how the children who come to talk to us were turning out – their values, their ethos. These things aren't easily grasped on a show visit to a secondary school and are of course invisible in league tables. Would my child be happy in a super-disciplined academy where, for example, you can’t talk or touch each other in the corridors? Would they like the pseudo-grammar school ethos of a particular free school? Or would they like the more inclusive but perhaps less controlled feel of an old-fashioned local comprehensive? (No prizes for guessing which one I would pick.)
The values of the parents who came to talk to us were just as telling. Why choose the local school? Because, said one parent, education is not just about results. It's about a social education, about staying in the community. These are powerful words, and they rightly present a challenge to parents who are tempted to take their children away from the community in all its diversity. Let's all meet. Let's talk about it.