Sometimes I have an education fantasy: that Posh and Becks or Kate and Wills decide to send their children NOT to Eton or Harrow but to the comprehensive school down the road.
What more powerful message could there be that these schools are fine? It happens in Holland. But then I wake up and remember I am in England, where it's hard enough convincing professional people, let alone A list celebrities, that what's closest to them might just be best.
Yet steadily but surely the Meet the Parents scheme is growing. The BBC's Economics Editor, Robert Peston, is backing it. “Meet the Parents is a brilliant initiative. I hope it becomes part of the fabric of the education system.” Peston is comprehensive-educated, as are his sons, and founded Speakers4Schools to ensure that inspiring people come and talk to pupils in state schools.
The Meet the Parents
idea is just as simple and practical. Parents who have committed to the local state secondary schools come one evening to a local primary school with their children and answer questions from an audience of primary school parents who are worrying about where to send their own children after Year 6. The idea is to tackle openly and honestly all the rumours and age-old reputations about the local schools. Surely the people who know what these schools are really like are the children who are at them and their parents?
It is a curious thing how, for all the angst that some parents go through when making their secondary choices, they so often rely on out-of-date information. It’s not their fault: such is the tribal nature of our society, that lots of them simply don’t know any families using local schools. And yet schools in London, for example, are outperforming the rest of the country. Meet the Parents is there to fill the information gap.
The scheme has been running for a year now. The events take place every autumn, when parents are going to open days and deciding where they would like their children to go at secondary level (that is assuming they have a choice). This year we covered eight secondary schools across Islington in North London.
Next year, we are expecting to have events covering more than twenty secondary schools. The scheme is steadily gaining publicity, and with it passionate parents have come forward and offered to run their own events. Meanwhile, we are targeting school governors as the most obvious group to organise Meet the Parents events themselves or find other parents who will. Lots of local authorities organise a briefings every term for all their governors – it is the perfect place to get the message across.
We have been getting some great feedback from parents who have attended our events. Most recent comments include: “It's priceless to hear from existing pupils who aren't pupil ambassadors.”...”It's given me access to ask difficult questions that aren't appropriate for open day:” ... “Make it last all night!”. Parents feel they are getting information they can trust, instead of the PR schools feel increasingly obliged to pump out.
We have discovered that the more balanced the views of the panelists, the more parents believe them. Lining up parents who are totally uncritical of their schools doesn’t work: audiences don’t expect what’s free and available to all to be perfect (a bit like the NHS). It’s in marked contrast to the private system, where parents who are paying big school fees don’t like to hear that they might be wasting their money.
Parents are also getting the sort of information you cannot shove in a league table. You can’t “measure” a school’s ethos, what pupils feel like to be there, and most important of all, their values. In other words, how kids turn out. As a prospective secondary school parent myself, this is what I really want to know about. Will my children turn out as compassionate and questioning human beings, alongside understanding a range of subject areas? For me, a successful school unifies its pupils, irrespective of their backgrounds, through common values of decency and independent thought.
A year on from starting Meet the Parents, I feel the parents who have taken part from the start have been on a journey of sorts: I feel we have all gained a deeper knowledge of how schools work and how to judge them. We have learnt to look beneath the surface a bit more. Exam results which may seem initially underwhelming take on a different hue when you learn more about the social profile of a school.
There is a confessional vibe to the sessions. Parents raise openly issues that until now have been brushed under the carpet or only talked about in private. Take the tendency to justify sending your child privately or to a selective school by condemning the local comprehensive. The parents criticise the school to their child, then their child does the same to his or her friend, who happens to be going there. One parent spoke of the two years of negativity her son endured in his primary school before he went to his local comprehensive only to find it was fine.
Another discussion this year was particularly enlightening: do looks matter? One parent described the brutalist architecture of the local school as resembling an open prison. She said she used to drive past it and say to herself: no child of mine will ever go to that school. Well, he did. And he liked it. The mum concluded: “He doesn't care what it looks like, what matters to him is what goes on inside.”
The most moving stories are of families who have backed their local school when none of their friends did. You can hear their pain as they retell how most of their neighbours had never set foot in the school. Meet the Parents is changing that slowly. In the year since it started, the number of parents from my children's very middle class primary school who have looked round one particular comprehensive has risen from 3 to 30. Just getting people to step inside is an achievement in itself.
Time and again what emerges is that the schools in our area are disciplined places where individual progress is closely monitored and slipping under the radar is no longer possible. And again and again, parents tell how their bright children are doing well – confirming endless research studies showing children from supportive homes do well anywhere (even the latest OECD/PISA research backed that up).
And yet there is still a very long way to go. In my son's year, little by little parents are revealing their secondary choices. On reflection, the scheme started too late for many of them – the tutors were booked in the summer holidays before Year 5. Their children were set on a trajectory to take them out of the community to selective and private options, leaving behind their friendships from early childhood.
It is a thoroughly depressing experience seeing a class so contented and coherent steadily shattered and scattered to all four corners. One parent explained to me that she wanted her child to be educated in a selective school so that they were away from working class pupils (something she claimed most middle class parents wanted). Once I had got over the content of her statement, I decided her honesty was ultimately a good thing. How can you begin to have a proper debate unless people are prepared to tell the truth about their choices, however unpalatable it is to hear?
The next step is action: attitudes will only change if the parents who are committed to educating their children at good schools in the community do just that – and then spread the word. We need parents and governors everywhere to set up their own Meet the Parents events at their local primary schools. The website www.meettheparents.info
tells you how. Or get in touch with me directly at email@example.com
If your local authority organises governors’ briefings, please let me know. The events take a bit of time to set up, but it’s worth it.
By Madeleine Holt, Founder, Meet the Parents December 2013