Why are the middle classes so obsessed with schools?

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

One thing I love about my adopted country is the widespread cultural contempt for dullness. Unlike North Americans, intelligent British people rarely drone on in a witless or self-aggrandising manner. They deflect, make jokes and generally aim to please. But there is one boring subject no one here ever seems to tire of and that is schooling.

‘So where do your kids go?’ I’ve learned is just as loaded and inescapable a London dinner party question as ‘What do you do?’ or ‘Where are you on Brexit?’

If you choose private, you’d better have a plausible explanation (e.g. ‘We just didn’t want to make our child the social experiment’). And if you choose state, you’d better mention how ‘absolutely brilliant’ the school is, lest anyone think you didn’t put years of thought and research into the decision.

The truth is, as a Canadian, I’m not fussed where my kids go to school. When the time came, I just did what we do in my culture, which is send them to the one around the corner.

This is not because I’m performing a social experiment (although that does sound fun) but because it’s easy and safe and free. Last time I checked, London schools were performing better than the national average. And while we’re not living in Singapore, the UK has a well-functioning education system at both the state and private levels. I care about my kids being decently educated — that’s why I’m bringing them up in London and not, say, Ouagadougou, where according to Zoopla we could get a much bigger house.

But where I live, in a semi-gentrified patch of north-west London, taking a blasé attitude to schooling is tantamount to an extreme form of child neglect. Breeders round here — as in most middle-class enclaves in Britain — seem to assume that all responsible parents should be tied up in knots over the question. Mothers, in particular, are expected to be consumed with educational anxiety — to lose sleep fretting and devote a significant portion of our waking hours into researching and discussing the question of schools with our friends and neighbours. The system is ‘competitive’, I’ve been told, and it’s important to strive for the best to ensure our children don’t get ‘left behind’. (Where are they going to get left? In the pub? Would that be so bad?)

I’d chalk it all up to virtue signalling and competitive anxiety if I hadn’t watched so many people turn their lives upside down over it. For instance, it is not uncommon for otherwise reasonable people in my postcode to do the following in pursuit of a ‘good’ school place:

1) Spend two years or more attending church while not believing in God even the teeniest tiniest bit.
2) Move house to get into a ‘better’ catchment area.
3) Take out loans to afford private tuition.
4) Take out a second or third mortgage to afford private tuition.
5) Take a year-long sabbatical from work to help their child prepare for the 11 plus.
6) Have one parent (invariably the mother) stop work altogether to ‘support the process’ of finding/getting into the right school.

In Canada, by contrast, most parents I know just sort of muddle along. The system isn’t perfect, but when it’s functioning normally everybody treats it as just that: normal. Obviously there are private options for very rich people and religious options for the deeply God-fearing but for the rest of us (i.e. the vast majority) there are just neighbourhood schools. And we send our kids to them. And no one really talks about it.

When I was young, my parents — both well-educated people with successful careers — put exactly zero thought into my education. They sent me to the school around the corner. When we moved, they sent me to another school around another corner. The main criterion of any school I went to was that I should be able to walk there. When it was time for secondary school, I found a selective arts school and applied for it on my own and got in. My parents offered no opinion or interference in the matter. It was the same with university. I got into McGill — arguably the best university in the country — on an academic scholarship. This didn’t happen because I am a genius but because I understood, from a very young age, that my education was just that: my own.

Here in the UK, it’s normal for parents to take on all the responsibility for their kids’ schooling. We’re happy to do so because it’s received truth that school choice matters deeply for our children, far more than other factors like economic advantage, family culture and genetics. Why else would the chattering classes spend so much time freaking out about it?

In fact, almost all major research disputes this. This is not to say that school choice doesn’t matter — just that it’s a factor among many others. If you’re poor, academic achievement can still be a ticket to a better life — but for most well-supported middle-class kids in Britain today, what school they go to will not make a huge difference in the long run.

I’ve been here long enough to understand that a lot of this educational anxiety is really about social status. The British middle classes are a tribal, peer-oriented group, and schooling obviously plays a huge part in that.

But as a foreigner, I’ve been a bit slow comprehending the scope of it. For instance, it took me ages to work out that one of the main reasons British parents get so worked up about school choice is because they expect to become friends with the other parents in their child’s class, and that in choosing a school for their children they are also choosing a new potential peer group and networking pool for themselves.

In Canada no one worries about the ‘parent social scene’ at this school or that because there isn’t one. There are no ‘drinks nights’ or pressure to be friendly in that way. In part, it’s because of the bussing system, which prevents one from running into other school parents on a daily basis. By contrast, in Britain we have the daily school run which is sweet but also quite draining. So much small talk and ‘Hello darling!’ so very early in the morning.

One of the reasons I find the British obsession with education curious is because I don’t really have a dog in the fight. It doesn’t offend me if rich people send their kids to private schools or religious people send their kids to religious schools. I know there are huge societal issues at stake and that education is the engine of social mobility etc, but on a superficial dinner party level, I don’t really care. What I do worry about is not dying of boredom before my youngest goes off to uni.

So go ahead, do what you want. Move house. Quit work. Go to church six times a week and twice on Sunday. Send your kids to boarding school on the moon. But can we please, please just talk about something else?

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