‘A gentle challenge will often prompt the mantra that’s endlessly parroted to justify a parent’s principles turning to dust in the lead-up to the 11-plus exam. ‘You have to do the best by your child, don’t you?’’ Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
When my son was six months old, I agreed to move to Gloucestershire. It’s lovely here in the Stroud Valleys – or it is until your child reaches the second half of primary school, and everyday chats about school stuff with friends suddenly start to veer off into shamefaced mumbles about tutoring, and how if Charlie or Clara want to take the 11-plus with their mates, “then who are we to stop them?”
You’re their parents, who make a heap of choices about your children’s lives based on your political beliefs, is my answer. So why crumble now?
As an education journalist who is opposed to selection – because it disproportionately benefits an already vastly advantaged middle-class minority, and actively harms the educational prospects of other, often poorer children – I find negotiating these conversations with people I know painfully fraught. I have not yet found a polite way to tell a friend who allows their child to take the 11-plus that, while I cling to the idea that they are not at heart a shit, they are doing an exceedingly shitty thing.
A gentle challenge will often prompt the mantra that’s endlessly parroted to justify a parent’s principles turning to dust in the lead-up to the 11-plus exam. “You have to do the best by your child, don’t you?” is intoned with a phlegmatic sigh, lips pressed together in wry acknowledgment that the situation isn’t ideal, but life’s a bitch, and one’s own child’s interests – obviously– trump every other consideration. The listener’s agreement is automatically assumed.
No, I increasingly want to yell. Given that their offspring, and pretty much all their friends, are among the luckiest children in the history of humankind, choosing to construct a more divided society via our taxpayer-funded education system that disadvantages other kids – some with unimaginably difficult home lives that make it harder for them to do well at school – is not something I think should be encouraged. But it appears to be viewed as aberrant or just plain weird by many middle-class parents not to grab every possible personal advantage and hug it tight to the family bosom, while still maintaining they want the best for all.
We’re animals. I get it. We’re programmed to chase advantage for our young, even to the detriment of other people’s children. And so while it’s particularly pernicious that some parents pay for months, sometimes years, of tutoring to get their child through an exam that they might well otherwise fail, I know it’s because they are desperate to secure for their child any extra benefit going in a country that is becoming ever more unequal.
But inside, I seethe. Often I do so silently, because with so many parents actively pursuing the advantages that selection confers, confronting them has become deeply socially uncomfortable.It’s incongruent with many people’s view of themselves as good folk who believe in fairness and equality. And facing this paradox head-on in conversation has, in my experience, become something of a taboo: how do you call out friends and stay friends, when you’re accusing them of hurting other people’s children? I try, but the discomfort it prompts is palpable, and defensiveness is rife. The fact that researchers have concluded that there is “no benefit to attending a grammar school for high-attaining pupils” makes the unedifying scrabble even more sad.
It’s the system that stinks, of course, and it has to be fought at the policy level, not by individuals at the school gates. Parents mustn’t set themselves against each other. While that is true, it doesn’t let parents off the hook. It may be possible – I guess – to be opposed to selection in principle even while sending your children to a grammar school. Yet in practice parents cannot challenge a system with any authority when they have cut the ground from beneath their own feet. When prominent people such as Shami Chakrabarti express concerns about selectionand then admit they opt out and write a fat cheque when it comes to their own kids, asking ordinary parents to stand up and be counted becomes tricky. Within the education sector too, people give up their power by acquiescing with a system they think is wrong: I know a headteacher who believes passionately in comprehensive education, whose child attends the local grammar: it is now impossible for that head to speak out without being called a hypocrite. We all make compromises in life, but this one comes at a high price paid by children who aren’t “selected” and who have no power and no say.
No unfair system was ever overturned by people carrying on using it for their own selfish ends while spouting their dismay. If the government sees parents urgently ushering their children into the 11-plus queue, then there is no debate left to win. Arguments against selection are fatally compromised when the very people one might normally expect to challenge unfairness, and who have the political heft to do it – articulate, middle-class parents – wave Charlie and Clara off to the local grammar every morning and, perfectly understandably, then feel too embarrassed to raise their voices.