That topic of dinner-party chat - where to send the children to school - receives a boost this week with publication of an irreverent guide telling parents which schools are in - and out. The latest edition of the Good Schools Guide, written "for parents by parents", promises to reveal where you will find bullying and where to avoid social climbers.
The schools are not, generally speaking, comprehensives but their private counterparts that cost up to pounds 14,500 a year. Amanda Atha, author of the guide's sixth edition, is scathing about inspectors' reports where words like "outstanding", "happy", "exemplary", "caring", pepper every paragraph.
Take such reports with a pinch of salt, she suggests, and turn to her guide, based on visits to 350 schools and talks with heads, staff, teachers, pupils and parents. Miss Atha is undaunted by the reputations of even the most famous schools. Eton is "still number one for social status", first-class all round and offers outstandingly good teaching but drink is "a perennial problem".
Westminster, top of this year's independent school A-level league tables, is also viewed with a cool eye. There are "continuing reports of bullying" though the outgoing head says inspectors' comments on improving pastoral care have been implemented. One parent commented on the academic pressure that "there is no mercy".
Millfield, in Somerset, another school in the headlines recently and famous for its sporting prowess, "could be your first choice if you have a dyslexic child, providing the child is reasonably robust and determined or if you have a real winner but no money". Be prepared, also, for "lots of flash new money" and mothers with "large rocks, shoulder pads and stilettos".
Stockbrokers should head for Charterhouse, "a super public school for the sons of stockbrokers" which has "five-star facilities". Benenden, which the Princess Royal attended, is a traditional girls' boarding school but "no longer the fashionable choice for English pupils".
Bullying appears to be on the increase, the guide notes, but it applauds the head of Rugby for eradicating a long tradition of bullying. The scene of Tom Brown's Schooldays is "going from strength to strength" and is even described by some boys and girls as "fun".
Other schools which receive the book's seal of approval are Winchester, described as one of the best - if not the best - and brightest. St Paul's Girls in London is "utterly wonderful" and Manchester Grammar is a "five- star academic day school".
State schools are in a minority but Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge is "a match for any fee-paying school" and William Ellis comprehensive is "a super-strong north London state school with a tremendously hard- working, innovative staff" which teaches children from 76 countries with more than 40 mother- tongues.
The London Oratory, attended by Euan Blair, the Prime Minister's son, is "a very Catholic, very disciplined, hard-working, all-ability school" and your exit from it is "rapid and certain if you - or your child - kick consistently against the unbending pricks of the school's policies".
Some facts are too hot for even this guide to handle: though some schools are now dispensing the morning-after pill, it declines to say which.
Dick Davison, of the Independent Schools Information Service, said: "The criticism of guides like this is that they are not guides to all the available schools. They may be eccentric and gossipy. Having said that, schools prefer to be in them rather than out."
But Tim Devlin, an education public-relations consultant, said it was good to give parents views about schools. Private schools had been scathing about the guide when it first appeared in 1986. "Now there has been a change of attitude."
The Good Schools Guide, published by Lucas Publications, price pounds 17.99.Reuse content