OPINION: choosing an inner-city school is harder than winning the lottery, argues Nicky Jones

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The Independent Online
As a teacher, I have often advised friends about what to look for when choosing a secondary school for their child. As a parent looking for a secondary school for my 10-year-old daughter, I am having to give myself a good talking to. What I know of the state secondary schools in my particular inner-city area of south London reassures me on the one hand and gives me sleepless nights on the other. And yet, I have to find a school for my child.

For five years I worked in an inner-city comprehensive in a run-down area of south London, close to my home. I loved my job and I loved the school, but when I left it had sapped every ounce of my strength. The teachers were among the finest anywhere, the children taught me more than I taught them, but I wouldn't send my own daughter there.

There was some excellent teaching done, but with so many children needing help, there just wasn't time for those who could manage by themselves and they were often left to their own devices.

Most of the children were pleasant and refreshing in their maturity, but sometimes the pressure of daily life in the inner city spilt over into the classrooms and things became plain dangerous. There were fights, bullying, drug dealing in the toilets and even stabbings. I feel uneasy that some parents have to entrust their children to a situation which is, at times, unsafe. But I cannot change the world alone.

Some parents move to be near a particular school. We discussed this and it seemed a real option for a while, but I love my home and so do my children. So we will stay and sweat it out.

Many of my friends are considering private education, and I have often asked myself whether I would take this option if we had the money. I dare not go and look at private schools at all, lest I waver from my deeply held principles that our British system is divisive and the root of many of the evils in our society, and let my daughter sit for an assisted place.

When I was a child the 11-plus destroyed friendships and set up hatreds that divided the children in our small village, and we never regained the closeness we had shared as children in the village school.

We were invited to our child's primary school for details about the transfer process. I found it confusing, even with my teaching background. Our borough, in its desire for total equality, has done away with the banding system, which was based on a reading test. But in the name of parental choice we are allowed to choose schools in other boroughs, and some use a reading test because banding by ability is still in effect. On top of this, voluntary- aided schools can set entrance exams

So we begin our round of visits to schools, eight in total, squeezed in between other arrangements and with a nervous child in tow. We listen to a similar talk by each headteacher and are shown around by processions of well-primed children, and we become more and more alarmed. Most of the schools we have chosen have hundreds more applicants than they are able to take. The headteachers explain that we must not despair as children often get in from a waiting list.

Friends become cagey about their favourite school. We are in competition and some of us will be losers. Our child's happiness is at stake. As mothers, we are she-wolves - wary, hackles raised, anxious for our young.

Are we prepared to avow that we are committed to the Church in order to get our daughter into a church school, when we attend only at Christmas and Easter? Should I, like Tony Blair, send my child to the local grant- maintained school, in our case a city technology college stuffed full of gleaming equipment, when I know teachers are struggling to find money for books in a school nearby?

Am I prepared to go against my child's own wishes and let her go to a school of her choice that I feel is just not good enough for her? If I am, how can I explain this to her and to myself? A Swedish friend of mine tells me these issues do not exist in Sweden as all schools are equally good and children attend the nearest. Surely it's time this unfair and muddled system was sorted out. This isn't parental choice, it's a lottery.