Bethan Marshall: Choosing schools made me miserable

Is it any wonder that faced with the task of deciding our child's life chances we wake in the small hours
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The Independent Online

Finding a school for my daughter gave me not so much an opportunity to exercise parental choice, so much vaunted by the two main parties these last two weeks, but a chance to dither. Should I choose the all girls' school down the road where I was a governor and where I had sat on the appeals panel for a number of years, or should I go for the local mixed comprehensive? Exercising my rights, I entered her for both; she was accepted at both, and then the anxiety began. What if I made the wrong decision? How would I forgive myself? The choice made me miserable.

Finding a school for my daughter gave me not so much an opportunity to exercise parental choice, so much vaunted by the two main parties these last two weeks, but a chance to dither. Should I choose the all girls' school down the road where I was a governor and where I had sat on the appeals panel for a number of years, or should I go for the local mixed comprehensive? Exercising my rights, I entered her for both; she was accepted at both, and then the anxiety began. What if I made the wrong decision? How would I forgive myself? The choice made me miserable.

For weeks, I oscillated between the two, weighing up the pros and cons. Single-sex education was meant to be good for girls, and I knew the school well. I thought the head was excellent and the teaching first rate, but the journey was longer and only one other child from the primary school was definitely transferring there. The other school was good, too. It was nearer, and most of her classmates would be attending it, but I knew it less well so it seemed more of a risk. I didn't even consider the local church school, which I may have got her into, nor the three independent girls' schools within a mile of my home, not to mention the three or four a Tube ride away.

In the end, we picked the local mixed comprehensive where she has been fine. When, last year, we had to pick a school for her younger sister, I had not a flicker of doubt or indecision, and put her down for the same school. The whole process was calm and unproblematic. I did not wake at five in the morning in a sweat, wondering if I could get the application form out of the postbox, but spent the time preparing her for what lay ahead. She, too, appears to have survived her first year unscathed.

My anecdotal experience is mirrored in the findings of a recent survey undertaken by the Times Educational Supplement. When asked, 85 per cent of parents said they were happy with their children's school. At first, this statistic sits oddly with the fact that appeals have risen about 55 per cent over the period that Labour has been in office, not least because the overwhelming majority of appeals are unsuccessful.

What the TES findings suggest, however, is that while such parents were rendered profoundly anxious by the promise of choice, once their child started at another school they relaxed. Such evidence is echoed by the American social psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. His basic thesis is that choice is stressful, and, in the worst case scenario, it can lead to profound depression. This is because any choice makes us wonder whether we have made the right decision, and leaves us with that endless sense of the "what if" - what if I had chosen differently?

Consumerism plays on the double-edged nature of choice by making us dissatisfied with what we have. Any good marketer has to create in us a desire for what we do not already possess or make us look askance at what we own. But it does more than this in the way it works. Consumer items are not neutral. They come not just with a price tag, but a label, too. And it is these labels which not only provoke envy and longing but allow us to position ourselves in the social pecking order. Your bag comes from Prada, mine from Sainsbury's. Your sun-glasses are D&G, mine Tesco's.

The sociologist Fred Hirsch describes this as the power of what he calls positional goods, explaining that the élite will always use them to mark out and preserve their territory as superior. The Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, made schools a positional good. Inherent in the rhetoric of an education market, league tables and parental choice, is the flip side - failing schools. You cannot have one without the other and that is why, quite legitimately, 15 per cent of parents are still worried about their child's school.

Labour's response to this conundrum has been to adopt the same language. Choice for them is also the key. In this consumer age, where choice is apparently all, how could they not? But the choice of where we are educated is not the same as what toothpaste we buy. And if such simple decisions as what kind of shampoo to get, over time, can make us tense, is it any wonder that faced with the monumental task of deciding our child's life chances, we wake in the small hours, wondering if we have done the right thing? Compound that with the fact that schools are status symbols, and that market forces are part of the problem, not part of the solution, you have to ask why any politician thinks choice is remotely appealing at all.

Maybe we need to take a different piece of language from the world of business to ensure standards - that of investment. Instead of seeing parents and their children as consumers, we should see them as investors in partnership with the school, and demand that the potential of all is achieved. The job of the state is to provide equity of provision, which neither party has yet achieved.

The author is a lecturer in English Education at King's College London

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