I am a middle-class mother of two, educated to PhD level. I work in an education industry. You’d think that when it comes to my own kids, I’d be hothousing like mad. Nonetheless, when it comes to sending them to school, I can’t help feeling I have let them down. I mean, I send them (the eldest one, at least – the other’s still too little). And I help them with their reading and whatnot. But so far I have singularly failed to do any of the following things:

  • save enough money for an emergency private school fund
  • make a tactical home purchase in a sought-after catchment area
  • pretend to be a Christian in order to get my sons into the voluntary-aided “outstanding” school down the road (which is actually closer than the school Eldest ended up in)

The last of these things is partly down to laziness, partly down to a desire not to be a hypocrite (and okay, a teeny bit down to the fear that if God does exist, namedropping Him in order to get a school place might make him rather wrathful come Judgement Day). The first two are down to money. I don’t have enough cash to play the system. So I get to keep my principles, but only because I’m too skint to sell out.

When it comes to the school selection process, it seems to me there are three levels of selfishness from which to choose, providing you’re wealthy enough to avail yourself of the options. You can be totally unselfish and believe in an equal right to a good education for all and, thus arguing that your child has no more right to a “good” school place than another child, you steadfastly refuse to play the game. You can be semi-selfish, putting your children before all other children and moving Heaven, Earth and massive wads of cash to get them where you want them to be. And you can be mega-selfish, putting yourself before your children. You might look like one of the unselfish people, choosing not to purchase an unfair advantage, but actually it’s because you’d rather spend the money on holidays abroad and shoes.

When you’re in my position and can’t choose, it’s worthwhile pretending it’s all down to principles. I totally believe in an equal education for all and resent the inequality that persists. Nevertheless, I’m always giving my kids things I wouldn’t give to other children. I always put my own first. When I’m trying to help Eldest with his homework, I do want to be giving him an edge over others. So with more cash in my pocket, wouldn’t I be even worse? Perhaps, although my worry is that I’d just fall straight into being mega-selfish. I’d still plough through Oxford Reading Tree (I hate Biff and Chip, but do have a soft spot for Kipper), but when it comes to actual money, I’d be keeping it to myself (or perhaps I wouldn’t? Or would I? Well, w/evs. I just know I’d have to buy more shoes before even thinking about Eton or Rugby).

Because I visit schools in my professional life, I do have a lot of faith in teachers. I don’t think private schools are “better” in any educationally meaningful sense (although I suspect they give you a substantial leg-up). I don’t think an “outstanding” Ofsted rating tells the whole story. And yet this creeping guilt persists. I’m terrified that I have done something which could make years of my children’s lives miserable or, worse still, damage their whole future potential. The fact is, a voice keeps telling me that as soon as I knew I wanted to have children – and I have always known – I should have realised I needed to get rich. It might still not have happened, but if I’d been aware of the issues, perhaps I’d have made more serious, less arty / liberal / wussy career decisions. And while I’ve had many sensible, reassuring comments when I expressed my concerns about this on twitter, the illusion of choice – and the constant message, reinforced by the media and the government, that schools have to be in competition with one another – feeds my insecurities.

I come from a small town. There weren’t many schools to choose from anyhow. There was a grammar, but a 13-plus system meant everyone went to the same place at age 11. Having spent years watching Grange Hill and being terrified that in order to survive secondary school, I’d need to think up thousands of cheeky scams to bamboozle bully and teacher alike, I found Big School something of a disappointment. It was actually quite pleasant and if anything, I’d have appreciated more drama. Throughout it all, it never crossed my mind that where you went to school could really be a parental responsibility. You just went to whatever school happened to be nearby. And yes, where you live dictates what’s nearby, but we only ever moved house once, and that was from one side of a semi to the other (look, it made sense at the time – the neighbours had built an extension, plus the removal costs were minimal).

Anyhow, that’s my excuse for poor planning. And now I’m stuck with guilt: guilt about failing my children, about mistrusting the system in which I believe, about becoming one of “those” parents whose decided their child needs special treatment, about not believing in the resilience of my own offspring. I feel guilty about it all and didn’t expect to feel this way. Someone should have educated me about all this.