A lesson in school ‘choice’ guilt

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.

10 thoughts on “A lesson in school ‘choice’ guilt

  1. It’s funny, I totally don’t feel this burden of illusory “choice” (at least, not yet, but then Elfling is only 3). In my life, private school has always been something that happened to other people. It was always so obviously outrageously expensive and not for me. Now I’m the parent, better off than my parents were at this stage I guess, and I suppose it’s not inconceivable that I could spend the next 8 years madly scrimping to amass funds for a private high school, but still, it just doesn’t seem like something I’m likely to do, or should do, or that “people like me” see as an option. (I’m from South Africa, so the whole background is a bit different, but presumably not that much.)

    Otoh my husband went to a private school – the German School in Cape Town – and would dearly love our kids to go to Deutscheschule wherever we happen to be. (He was far from rich, but had the advantage of a Swiss dad paying for his education.) He had a great school experience, and there’s no denying I would also love that for ours. But I can’t really see it happening. And I absolutely don’t (yet?) feel any guilt whatsoever. Just such an alien thing, the whole “private school” idea.

    …Although if it were a possibility? I probably would send them off to private school equally guilt-free. Well, I’d choose the school rather carefully, the whole Eton/Rugby thing is vaguely repulsive, advantage be damned. But just as I don’t get the guilt over “failing” to provide private school, I don’t really get the guilt for choosing that if it’s available. Something else to chalk up to being an outsider, I guess. Entirely different class/social/privilege issues.

  2. Love the idea of moving from one side of a semi to the other.

    I went to “the school that everyone went to”. All the children for a 20-minute drive in any direction from the school all went to the school. You’d have to move quite a way to do any of this “buying a house in a good catchment area” malarkey.

  3. I went to a grammar, and while it was pretty good for me, I still don’t think that they or private schools are any better for children in the long run. I’m nowhere near having children though, so maybe when I do my views will change!

  4. My sister did her A levels at a very small private school. Staff turnover was so high that she had at least two teachers for every subject she took. She came out with 3 Cs (I’m biased but she was capable of 3 As – these were the days before A*s).

    I suspect, though, I’ll still sell out my lefty liberal principles and send my kids to private secondary school if I can afford it (highly unlikely).

  5. 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 very fact that you have post-secondary education bodes well for your children.

    The socioeconomic background I’m guessing you possess heavily biases the likelihood of your children achieving a positive academic result. I would worry less about the school your kids go to, and more on creating a stable, nurturing environment where they can securely attach and then explore the world with confidence.

    I’m a behavioural needs special education teacher and thus my bias leans toward teaching children how to behave in humane ways toward themselves and others. When I see the indicators of high parental involvement and care, usually everything turns out just fine.

    1. My background was very middle-class but my brother left school with two GCSEs and has never worked. This is more to do with very specific learning difficulties and disabilities, but it makes me terrified of “doing something wrong” (for a long time the specialists who saw my brother blamed “family dynamics” for a whole host of symptoms – unfairly, I feel, but it always makes you question yourself). Having said all that, my brother went to private school (because my parents were so worried about him) and I didn’t, so that should say something about all this pointless worrying I engage in regarding schools!

  6. We hit lucky (luckier than we deserved) with primary, and provided things don’t change, the children should move on to a decent local secondary with 99% of their classmates.
    I still fret periodically about private school (not an option since I have up work and had a third child) and wonder if I’ve selfishly done them out of that elusive factor which might have helped them succeed. I had an excellent state education & could have done anything, really, but I’m not so convinced that the same will apply for their generation. Can but hope, I suppose.

  7. I was educated at a church school, it was the only option given my parents religious beliefs, I did ok (post-grad education/professional career) but I would have done better without the gender restrictive religious restrictions. My 2 children have both been to state school but are now in private education thanks to family money, we could fund one but not two. My eldest could have remained in state education and would have been fine, (his year had a high level of parental involvement/engagement) not so my youngest, his peer group demographic was massively affected by child protection issues and this was impacting both his behaviour and education, we are lucky to have the option of removing him from that situation. They are now in smaller classes with good parental involvement but again it’s not plain sailing, some parents effectively hand over the responsibility of raising their child/children to the school as after all they’re paying for a
    service?! I don’t think any option is easier, just different, and the worry/concern/guilt is part of being a parent.

    1. Yes – I am sure I would feel guilty whatever I ended up doing! Before I had my first son, I swore I wouldn’t indulge in parental guilt tripping as I considered it a waste of time, but it’s impossible not to! My partner went to private school for 6th form and doesn’t have happy memories of it. It all depends so much on the particular school – I just wish there wasn’t this illusion that parents have more choice than they really do as it makes you feel to blame for everything!

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