This Middle Class Neurosis Over Schools is Bullshit

The latest round of the annual allocation of places in state secondary schools for 11 year olds starting in September produced the usual outpouring of angst among parents over the lengths they have to go to get their little darlings into the best establishments. Poor them.

This year there was a special call-in edition of BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme devoted to school admissions broadcast on the day parents learned the good, bad or ugly news about their allocation.

We heard from parents who had spent several years planning their child’s future, others who had gone through the appeals process, some who had rediscovered - or discovered - their religion to gain a place at a church school, and others again who had bought a home within the catchment area.

The commitment parents will make was clear. One woman spoke of stretching the family’s finances to breaking point to buy a home in the right catchment area; one father sang in the local church choir attached to the target school for several years; another lent his stock of sound and lighting equipment to a school that wanted to raise its profile in the performing arts.

That’s all well and good and up to them, but the common theme that emerged was a desire for children to go to a school with good past scores for GCSEs and/or A-levels, or a high grade from Ofsted.

Parents were making a judgement that a school where the cohort who had joined four years ago performed well at GCSEs (or six years ago for A-levels) would produce similar results for any other child who joined subsequently. They are making those judgements and then singing in choirs for years.

Even more alarming it that the other main yardstick isn't very good either. Ofsted reports are made by a school inspectorate system that has been criticised in a report by Policy Exchange, a think tank, as being so unreliable, “you would be better off flipping a coin”.

As a school governor, I am well aware that Ofsted inspections can be highly arbitrary events, the outcome of which can be determined by the quality of the relationship between the inspectors and the senior management team on the day.

School choice does not determine life outcome

It’s not clear why parents get so worked up about schools when evidence suggest that it’s not the biggest factor in influencing how well kids do in life. Their background and the role the parents play over time will have a much greater impact on the child’s educational achievement than the school he or she attends.

A study in 2010 by Leeds and Leicester universities found that parents’ efforts towards their child’s educational achievement were crucial, playing a more significant role than that of the school or the child. As the then head of economics at Leicester, Professor Gianni De Fraja, put it: “The main channel through which parental socio-economic background affects achievement is via effort. Children work harder whose parents put more effort into their education.”

As this admittedly dated academic study carried out in 2003 showed, the factors that can be counted as parental involvement included: good parenting in the home, including the provision of a secure and stable environment; intellectual stimulation; parent-child discussion; good models of constructive social and educational values; and high aspirations relating to personal fulfilment and good citizenship.

Parents must stay involved 

While some cynics might say these are middle class values, they are clearly not the sole preserve of the bourgeoisie. Any good parent on whatever income can make the difference between a C and D, or even between an A and A*, at GCSE.

This is worth talking about because parents need to realise that their job does not end when they have paid or prayed enough to get their child into their chosen school. The exams that are so important for the future success are four or six years away, and simply getting a child into a school where certain pupils have recently done well is not enough.

The period between the age of 11 or 12 when kids join a school and 16 or 17 when they take exams is turbulent. They will find other impulses and temptations - sex, alcohol, drugs or antisocial behaviour - that will rival their desire to do well at school. It’s the teenagers who hold the power and responsibility for doing well in exams and, whatever the olds did four or six years ago, won’t be enough to make sure they don’t screw up. They need to stay involved all throughout.

The writer is a governor at an inner city London primary school

More about the author

About the author

Penelope Trunchbull is a pseudonym for a governor at two state schools in North London. She has a long and varied career in education but sadly she cannot reveal where.

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