Opinion: Why must we narrow our children's horizons?

We wanted our children to feel free to be themselves
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The Independent Online
Coming back to England after nearly five years abroad, many things seem strange and uncomfortable to us, but none more so than the British school system.

When we moved to the United States, we put our children into local schools - the ones everyone in the neighbourhood used - and that was that. In England, nothing was so simple.

Our home had been in Blair-ite London, but that raised problems: where would the children go to school? The bad comprehensives were awful, the good ones were impossible to get into. The selective day schools all single-sex, and a rat race to boot. So we moved to commuterland, where, we thought, in happy innocence, things would be different. But we had forgotten about the great British pattern for exclusion and separation.

Our intention had been to put the children into local schools. But which were these? Each morning the children in our village scattered in all directions - to this comprehensive or that private day school, to the convent or the city grammar school. Some were only glimpsed occasionally, on home leave from their distant boarding schools.

To our eyes, used to the cohesion of an American suburb, this was a patchwork quilt of nonsense. What a waste of petrol, we thought, driving children here, there and everywhere. And time. And energy. And how could you ever organise Little League or Fourth of July block parties, if half the neighbourhood kids had never set eyes on the other half?

More urgently, though, where was our place in all this? Where did our children fit in? The answer might have come easily if we had been descended from a long line of Etonians, or didn't have a bean, or abhorred private education in all its forms. But we were a family that straddled divides. We had a mixed educational background, and a reasonable income, although no family money or school fees plan. We were, by nature, pragmatists, who wanted only the best for our children. But what was that best?

So off we went to visit schools, from the least well-regarded local comprehensive to a nearby top flight boarding school. Some had better resources, others had teachers who seemed more on-the-ball, but all appeared orderly and efficient. We were confused. We took the advice of local parents, but that only confused us further.

British parents talk endlessly about schools, but so much of what is said is hearsay and prejudice. And what were we talking about, anyway? When we pored over the league tables, it seemed to us that relatively able children would come out of any one of the schools we had seen with a respectable clutch of GCSEs.

There would be differences, of course. Some schools would have us biting our nails as the children went through. Others could practically guarantee top-range results from the first day of the first term - but at what price to students, we wondered? In terms of figures on paper, however, we felt that the final outcomes would differ only at the margins - a grade or two here, maybe; a subject choice, there.

Beyond that, though, every school had its own distinct culture, and it was this that we realised we were choosing above all else. Not just a basic education but a whole approach to life - a group of peers, a set of values, a range of assumptions and expectations, an accent, a niche.

When we left for the United States, we closed the door thankfully behind us on the British class system, but now it yawned wide to take us in again. When new acquaintances asked us, as they always did, "And where do your children go to school?" we remembered with a sinking heart that this was not a geographical inquiry.

We tried to thrust all that aside and quiz ourselves rigorously about what we wanted from a school. Our priorities were unexceptional. We wanted our children to be confident and happy, to feel free to be themselves; to know excellence from mediocrity; tolearn as much as possible about the world, in all its richness and complexity, and to feel, when their time came, that they could walk out into it and take up their lives with both hands.

What didn't we want? They weren't ornaments, we didn't want to put them in niches. But niches were the only things on offer. State or private; selective or all-ability - no school offered them the neighbourhood inclusivity they had grown up taking for granted, and as we finally made our choices, we did it with a sinking heart, knowing that as we did so, we were inevitably narrowing their horizons.

Years ago, as the overseas editor of the Times Educational Supplement, I visited schools in many countries and decided then that if you ever needed a quick take on the fundamental problems of any society, you only had to look at the problems of the schools.

Coming with a fresh eye to England, the theory holds good. If you look at the divisions, and sub-divisions of our school system; at all the time and energy and money we tie up in preserving these divides; and at the anger and envy and ignorance and prejudice they engender, then it becomes clear that, while it might be the end of the 20th century in many parts of the world, Britain, in so many ways, prefers to stay put in feudal times.