New Internationalist

School places scramble shows snobbery at its worst

January 2014

Recently, I’ve been thrown into the process of trying to find a school for my daughter. It’s a bit like the TV game show Deal or No Deal: pure chance masquerading as calculated choice, with a little bit of cheating thrown into the mix.

‘Choice’ in this context is a euphemism, plucked from the lexicon of 21st-century newspeak that’s become the phrase book of modern politics. In this context, choice means competition.

In London, where I live, there is an estimated shortfall of 118,000 pupil places, which makes the primary school application process more cutthroat than the Dads’ egg-and-spoon race at sports day.

Tragically, instead of seeing this crisis as a problem that needs solving, the British Education Minister, neoliberal ventriloquist’s dummy Michael Gove, has seized it as an opportunity to push market ‘values’ into the education system via the introduction of Free Schools.

Essentially, this amounts to treating schools as businesses that offer their product to parents who then make their choice, or, to use a better word, consume.

Yet in Sweden, one of the first countries to experiment with the Free School model, the system has been found to have a detrimental effect on both education and equality.

The problem is that failure is a necessary part of competition. In June 2013, JB Education, a chain of ‘for profit’ schools responsible for the education of 10,000 Swedish schoolchildren, collapsed – leaving pupils stranded. A chain of schools is such a horrible idea; chains of banks, chains of chemists or chains of daisies – but not schools.

Another chain of Swedish schools was recently bought on the stock market by a Belgian dog-food company. Apparently, the school dinners are horrible but the children sit when they’re told.

Such an erratic system creates fear among parents, and such fierce competition can make you feel like you actually have no choice. You cannot just choose that your child go to the school at the end of the road. So, what do you do?

The most uncomfortable thing about the whole experience is what I describe as ‘the enforced middle-classness’ it breeds, even among previously principled people. I have seen and heard stories of parents who portray themselves as lefties going to ridiculous lengths to get their kid into a ‘good school’.

The most popular one is to discover God. I swear (to someone other than God) that if the devil had kids he’d be going to church every other Sunday just to ‘keep his options open’.

Then there’s moving house. You should see the ‘to let’ signs that go up in the houses and flats opposite my local school when the application process opens. Locals like my daughter are pushed out.

But what I’d like to know is: what lesson do these parents think they are teaching their children? Exposing them to the brutality, snobbery and cynicism of the world before they’ve even broken the bad news about Father Christmas…

Next time Michael Gove visits a primary school to pontificate about how we all need to take a more hands-on approach to education, I hope he proves the point by flushing his own head down the toilet.

Steve Parry is a comedy writer, performer and political activist. He is Welsh and lives in north London. You can contact him on Twitter: @stevejparry

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 469 This column was published in the January 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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