After all that, I still failed the proximity test

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN is sending every household in the country a booklet explaining how the school system works. Badly, to judge by the information the Department for Education feels compelled to impart to the population, and the words-of- one-syllable tone in which it thinks it must do it. Mr Patten explains carefully that all children between the ages of 5 and 16 go to school in this country, and that parents can attend meetings at these schools. That one was certainly confusing.

Mr Patten's department clearly loves information. It promises to carry out market research to see whether we're getting enough of it, even as it bombards us with reports from independent inspectors, performance tables for schools, annual reports from governors, and endless comparisons of our children's progress with that of other, unrelated children elsewhere. All this, it assures us, will enable us to make informed choices.

I got interested here, because I've recently been trying to make an informed choice for my daughter - not that information was ever a problem. In fact, parents always know which the good schools are, because once you become a parent, this is the most interesting topic of conversation. Forget the new David Mamet or the Cabinet reshuffle: all parents really want to talk about is schools. The difficulties only arise when you attempt to act on the information. But Mr Patten was very reassuring about this. His pamphlet promises 'as a general rule, you now have a right to a place in the school you want'.

They've printed this line in heavy type, indicating that they know it's an exciting idea. So it's a shame, really, that it bears absolutely no relation to reality. I didn't get the school I wanted because too many other parents wanted it as well, and they lived nearer. Meanwhile, every year hundreds of parents in London feel it necessary to lie about their addresses to improve their chances of getting a good school; others give up the struggle to afford a house in the right area, live somewhere grottier and pay for their children to go private. Heads report that old catchment areas have been abolished, only to be replaced by even stricter proximity tests. And Mr Patten's vaunted appeals procedure might as well not exist for all the good it does most people in our London borough.

The Department for Education evidently imagines that pre- Patten, schools failed to teach us anything much at all; they assume we won't notice, after all this hoo- ha about getting the place you want, that they surreptitiously add 'unless all the places have been given to pupils who have a stronger claim to a place at that school'. Well thanks, Mr Patten, for this revolution in selection procedure. Still, at least when we lie awake at night, there'll be all those statistics to fret over.

IT'S BEEN a bad week for child care. Our nanny announced that she was leaving, and - just in case we hadn't got the point about the precariousness of our existence - went sick, plunging us into intense negotiations about which of us would pick up the children from school and drive them around for the remainder of the day. All activities with children seem to involve traffic jams, and the only extra conversation I had with mine as a result of spending more time in their company was to screech, 'Put your seatbelt on]' every now and then.

My sister and I, who share a nanny, now have to compose an ad for the Lady, in which we will try to compete with other employers promising holidays in the Caribbean, lovely homes with swimming pools and impossibly charming children. We will have to gloss over the fact that we are broke and live in the East End, where we are always being burgled, and where, according to recent reports, there is more disease than anywhere else in the country. It is bad enough having to pay vast sums of money to be able to work. But competing with the swimming pool people is really depressing.

I AM not religious, and most of the time, Christianity seems to me to be typified by the vicar who has urged his flock to shun a pair of adulterers in their midst: it may be forgiving in theory, but in practice it's smug and rather vile. So I've been trying to work out why I find Christian socialism so appealing, if only for other people. Well, specifically for Tony Blair. It may be that I'm just sold on Tony Blair and all his works, and have been ever since I interviewed him for an hour-and-a-half with his baby on his lap. (I'm sure the effect wasn't uncalculated, but hell, it worked. I was impressed.) But I'm not sure that it is just the New Man thing. Christian socialism does sound so wholesome. For a start, it allows people to say 'socialism' without being laughed at; it's a kind of qualified socialism, which implies (as Tony Blair does so delightfully all the time) that there's a possibility of conviction politics beyond the old left-right divide. It harks back to the simple rights and wrongs of Wat Tyler, of Diggers and Levellers, and forward to a politics that's both caring and tough-minded. It may well be that this is all image and sentimentality, and that I'll be deeply disillusioned (again), but for the time being, I'm rather grateful for this idea that politics isn't just about producing an economy that works but might involve something to believe in.

RIPPING fun] The fifth form at St Mary's Wantage, a top girls' public school, went on the rampage last week, prompting the Daily Mail to publish glamorous pictures of some ex-pupils - Lady Helen Taylor, Susannah Constantine, Marina Ogilvy - and breathless descriptions of the tennis courts. What jollity] And what if the fifth form at some sink comprehensive had rampaged through the school at 2am? Would there have been sexy pictures of ex-pupils in decollete, and respectful transcriptions from the prospectus? Or perhaps angry editorials denouncing the condition of the underclass, a decline in personal responsibility and lousy teachers infected with Sixties liberalism; and would Paul Johnson have called for the removal of the head? Surely not. We all know that the young are so high-spirited.

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