Rowan Pelling: A scary sink school? For my baby?

Of course the middle classes should stick with the comps, but the Pelling genes tell me otherwise
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The Independent Online

Autumn term: a pairing of words that, 20 years after I torched my school boater, still conjures up evocative images: new girl, Mallory Towers, conkers, detention, Clarks shoes. But for many parents it now means blind panic as they continue their quest to secure a school place for their beloved child where gangs, knives and demoralised teachers aren't daily facts of life.

With exquisite angst-inducing timing, Channel 4 screened Admission Impossible over the past two weeks, a documentary charting the progress of a handful of 10-year-olds as they enter the Great School Race. Since my son is only two and state education in Cambridgeshire is good, I thought I could watch the programme with the detached curiosity of one who has opted out of a particularly brutal contact sport.

I was wrong. It wasn't just that I felt sympathy for the children, who were generally told that nothing less than their whole darn future was at stake; I was unprepared for the jolt back to my own last year at primary school, when the 11-plus seemed like a division of the ways no less definitive than St Peter standing at the pearly gates, weeding out the sinners. My mother tutored me at the kitchen table from battered primers and even sent off for sample scholarship exam papers for Roedean. That plan was ditched when we discovered they set questions on physics, Latin and modern languages. But the hot-housing paid off when I was awarded a scholarship to Walthamstow Hall in Sevenoaks. She had dressed me in a "darned but clean" jumper for the interview with the headmistress, to emphasise our poverty and thrift. The bid to beat an iniquitous educational system is a time-honoured tradition here.

Admission Impossible caught brilliantly the sense of parental hopes and expectations lying like granite on young shoulders. It was easy to dismiss the mono-manic parents as insanely "pushy". Indeed, Joan Bakewell wrote of those parents in The Independent: "Their abuse was reserved for what they contemptuously called 'sink schools', about which they relayed horrific tales of murder and mayhem. All of which no doubt has its roots in real events and evaluations, but that's not the point."

Now I admire Ms Bakewell, but how can murder and mayhem at the school gates not be the whole big, fat point? One parent asked how anyone could send a bright child to a school where only 27 of 109 pupils were entered for GCSEs. Good question. I know I wouldn't.

Is that rampant snobbery? Incurable one-upmanship? Isn't it just plain, protective instinct? Reformers may implore parents to be less selfish and concentrate their energies on improving their local comprehensive, but decades of evidence demonstrate two things: parents won't risk sacrificing their children's education for a principle, and if you install an inspirational head and teachers the pushy parents will flock back to local schools.

The one area Admission Impossible didn't examine was the parents' educational background. Nothing influences a person's views on schools so much as their own experience of them. I watched the second part of the documentary with three of my siblings and their spouses. The person who was adamant his child would go to a local state school, come what may, was my husband. He attended a private prep school and Wellington College, both of which he loathed, then Oxford, which he quit two years into his degree course. He was the best-educated person in the room and the best-qualified to boost his child's education with some home coaching.

My oldest brother, Justin, is relaxed about his children's prospects, too. J passed the 11-plus with ease and gained a coveted place at Sevenoaks School, one of the most academic and innovative institutions. My older sister, Holly, had read every Ofsted report of every school in the area before she moved from London to my part of Cambridge, but was far more preoccupied with her daughter's social integration than grades. Holly was a borderline 11-plus case who was unhappy through her schooldays and bullied.

Finally there's my younger brother, Hereward, and his wife, Sally, who's one of my dearest friends. They sold their gorgeous country cottage a year ago to move to cramped, rented accommodation in an area where every suitable property is well out of their price range. Why? So their three children can attend one of the two top primaries in Kent. My brother, another borderline 11-plus case, was accepted by his grammar school only after my mother secured an interview with the headmaster, and my sister-in-law failed the 11-plus. She went to the local secondary modern, Hatton, where only about one in six pupils attempted GCSEs, rather than CSEs.

At the risk of sounding like an unbearable schoolgirl prig (my mother wouldn't let us watch the first two series of Grange Hill, because it was "common and coarse"), I remember the dread with which I viewed Hatton and the "rough girls" who, to my terrified eyes, looked like pit-bulls. These were still the glory years of skinheads and Docs.

I first met Sally at the start of autumn term 20 years ago when she arrived to take A-levels at my school. She had been awarded an assisted place after gaining decent O-levels and I was astonished to find she had been at Hatton, particularly as she had long, glossy hair and wasn't wearing jackboots. She says she was amazed when our form mistress handed her an UCCA form. No teacher had suggested before that she could go to university.

She went on to clinch a 2:1 and high-flying jobs. Her initial experiences of stalling at the first big rung of the British educational system has proved formative when it comes to her children's education. Joan Bakewell is right to worry about burdening children with a sense of failure, but low expectations can be as invidious. Or, as my father used to say: it's better to aim high, than to aim low and miss.