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26 September 2014

Fighting dirty: the battle for school places

Fighting dirty: the battle for school places

This week, a mother was convicted of forgery after she submitted a fake tenancy agreement in order to secure a place at a high performing school for her daughter. She was fined £500 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

Many parents might have sympathy for her. The magistrate in the case, Michael Peacock, sounded like he did: "You are obviously a very good and conscientious mother and like all good mothers you want your kid to go to the best school available. We hear of people buying expensive houses in expensive streets and so on, in order to get into a certain catchment area".

But, as he summed up, his judgment was clear: "Whatever you do it's got to be within the law. What you did was dishonest. It was cheating, cheating the system."

There are few issues that create the kind of anxiety and competitive behaviour among parents more than the battle for school places. Recent figures show an increasing number of parents are giving false information to secure places for their children at the most sought-after schools. Over the past five years, more than 700 children are believed to have had their places withdrawn after false information was submitted on application forms. In the past year alone, some 420 parents were suspected of cheating to ensure their children get into the best primary and secondary schools, a rise of 13 per cent on last year.

This issue is closely entwined with Christianity, because frequently it is church schools that parents are keen for their children to attend.

Recent media reports also claim parents have falsely claimed their children have been baptised. Although it could not be counted as legal fraud, there is the common issue of people attending church just to get their child a place at a church school. It's such an established route, to avoid the cost of private education, that it has its own catch-phrase: "Get on your knees to avoid the fees".

Rather than simply condemning parents, it's worth reflecting on the root causes. For me, these issues illustrate the complex mixture of good and bad, the divine and the dusty, which is within all of us.

On one hand, the commitment, care and sacrificial love that most parents show towards their children embodies the best of human nature. Whether religious or not, for many the bond of love for their children is a sacred thing and parents want the best for their offspring.

And yet, on the other hand, parenting also reveals a darker side of human nature, one that is deeply susceptible to the distorting effects of anxiety and pride.

Anxiety can be the default setting for modern parenting. Schooling worries are fueled further by league tables and Ofsted judgments. The fear that our decisions will mean our children miss out on life changing experiences can haunt parents like a persistent ghost.

Pride is often the flipside of anxiety. Even more than the houses we own or the cars we drive, children can become emblems of parental achievement. Living embodiments of our marvelous balance of skills and values. Sure, we love them, but we also love what they say about us. I tend to tell the stories that make me look good.

My oldest son has just started at a local comprehensive school. Inevitably it's a time of increased anxiety for him and for us as parents. As a family, it's a time when faith and prayer has been more relevant than ever. But it has also made me reflect on Andy Dorton's comment: "The problem with Jesus is that he never had kids: claim he understands all our temptations if you like, but he never had kids."

Last week at the local Church of England church connected to my son's new school, they held a special service for the school. A prayer was said, summing up so well a Christian hope for what education can bring: "For all involved in the task of education, that it may be devoted to justice rather than self-seeking, equality rather than privilege and the creation of community rather than division."   Amen!

Jon Kurht is executive director of social work at the West London Mission