OPINION: A constant round of choirs, computers and cookery failures don't make it any easier to pick a school, complains Barbara Lantin

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The Independent Online
It's Thursday, so this must be Queen Elizabeth's, King Egbert's, All Saints or the County High. For the past two months, I - like thousands of other parents - have spent much of my free time traipsing around the secondary schools in our area in an attempt to identify the perfect educational establishment for our rising 11-year-old.

I have heard Greensleeves rendered with varying degrees of skill by orchestras, brass bands and nose flutes. I have sat patiently through the cantillations of less-than-heavenly choirs. I have allowed myself to be weighed, measured and otherwise humiliated by eager Year 7s enthusiastically demonstrating newly acquired scientific principles. I have eaten rock cakes worthy of the name and gazed earnestly into the about-to-be-dissected eyeball of an ox.

I'm learning fast. I can now repeat the arguments for and against Acorn/Apple Mac/IBM computers as education aids. I can tell you why language labs are indispensable and why they should be junked. I now ask all the right questions about homework, curricula, pastoral care, discipline and drugs. And I'm even beginning to understand the replies.

If I had only known that I should be passing wet winter evenings, map in hand, trying to work out why the art room is where the sports hall should be and where on earth the tea and biscuits are being served, I would have taken an orienteering course. And am I the only parent who always seems to be in the home economics Portakabin at the far end of the sports field when the head's talk is about to begin half a mile away in the hall?

Ah yes, those talks. Essential listening I tell myself - how else can I really get the flavour of the school? - knowing all too well that to hear one is to hear them all. The starting point is always the ethos of the place with the emphasis on the individual. Academic success and examination results are important, we are repeatedly told, but what this particular school excels at is bringing out the best in each child.

This bit of philosophy is closely followed by an attack on the iniquitous league tables. Having warned prospective parents of how misleading these are as a measure of a school's success, heads invariably go on to describe their league-table performance in stupefying detail. The audience is then invited to refer to the printed "hymn sheets" - distributed at the door on arrival - listing every single exam result and university entrance.

My sympathy lies with these men and women. Year after year they must sell their school to an audience composed mainly of people who will never set foot inside it again. At one evening the desperate headmaster enlivened his annual talk with a school-uniform fashion show, complete with simpering models. Another beleaguered head so forgot herself that she sent two visiting children out of the hall for talking, to the astonishment of the assembled prospective parents.

So what have I learnt from my researches? Very little. Certainly I can tell you that School A has labs from the next century, more computers than Nasa, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a concert hall bigger than the Barbican, while School B is state-of-the-art circa 1950. The head at School Y is a power dresser with voice projection to match, while the one at School Z has his eyes permanently fixed on his Hush Puppies. The artwork on display at P could have made the Royal Academy, while that at Q looks like a pile of junk (which probably qualifies it only for the Tate).

But what does any of this prove? Only that some schools are richer, some heads more articulate and some art teachers more selective than others about the work they display. These visits give no sense of the issues that really matter - how smoothly and efficiently a school runs; whether or not it has a caring heart, and whether it truly values and nurtures the children in its charge. Those are the things you find out only when it is too late ...