Every year, thousands of parents face the situation I did in 2014 when I realised that I could no longer afford to educate my ten-year-old daughter privately. At first, I didn’t panic. After all, I lived near some excellent state schools.
After queuing for two hours one cold winter Saturday morning for Open Day, we learned that to gain a place at Holland Park you had to live within yards of it, or win a heavily oversubscribed art scholarship, which my daughter attempted — and failed. I still didn’t worry. Why should I have, when 93 per cent of children under 16 in England are educated in state schools?
We queued for one Open Day after another. We tried a couple of church schools, but as non-churchgoers our chances were slim. I visited Hammersmith Academy, Burlington Danes — the list went on. We loved the West London Free School, so I started phoning the admissions secretary with a regularity bordering on harassment.
In March 2015 Hammersmith and Fulham Council informed us we had not received a place at any school of our choice. The council is obliged by law to find every child a school though, so I went to see the one assigned to us. It’s an all-girls Catholic school, rated ‘good’ by Ofsted. I walked past chipped statues of the Virgin Mary in dusty alcoves and shabby classrooms. The atmosphere was sad, and I felt my optimism drain. I harked back to my own privileged education, boarding at an Elizabethan castle in Kent, and felt as if I was failing my daughter. Meanwhile, her friends won places at Benenden, St Paul’s or Latymer Upper. Friends suggested abandoning London, but our life, home, friends and my work were in London.
The council sent me a list of London state schools that had available places. A Harris Academy was on it and the Harris Federation had come to my attention for its excellent sixth-form college in Westminster. It was worth a try.
Harris Battersea sits on an ugly site between tower blocks behind forbidding metal gates. It was ranked the worst school in Wandsworth when the Harris Federation took it over in 2014. A decade earlier, it had been the worst performing school in the country. Nevertheless, we visited. ‘Well, you’ll be going to Cambridge,’ said the head Dr David Moody after talking to my daughter for ten minutes. This casually ambitious remark startled me, as I went to Cambridge myself and still faintly hoped my daughter might too. All the teachers we met talked to my daughter seriously, engaged her and asked questions. An hour later she enrolled.
On the first day of term my daughter and I sat on a bench in Battersea Park for what seemed like an hour so she could gather her courage. Then I watched her walk across the forecourt in her ill-fitting, synthetic black uniform, dwarfed by her rucksack. She knew no one. For the first month she begged to leave. Over breakfast, she looked at selfies posted by her friends at some of Britain’s most famous boarding schools. Most mornings I half expected her to turn back on her way to the Tube, but she didn’t.
She is now at the start of her fourth year at Harris Battersea and I serve as a parent governor there. Eighty per cent of students are ‘Pupil Premium’, meaning they are from poor backgrounds, and 60 per cent have English as a second language. These pupils are on free school meals and are three times more likely to be consistent absentees. Despite this, Harris Battersea has recently been ranked as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. My daughter’s academic progress has soared. From being average at her last school, she is top of her year in most subjects and predicted Grade 9s across the board.
I should be celebrating, but we are still viewed with pity by my peers who went to private schools. They view being at state school as an affliction. There is a widespread perception that if you drop out of private school, you scupper all chances of Oxbridge, a good internship, a decent job. No private school, no future.
So what is the reality for those of us who have apparently been forced to ‘destroy’ our children’s prospects? Are inner London state schools really so appalling? On the negative side, many of my daughter’s peers at Harris rarely leave Battersea. Their parents can’t afford trips to the theatre or museums, let alone travel. My daughter is teased for being ‘posh’ and nicknamed ‘the flat white’ as one of a handful of slim white girls. But cliques exist everywhere and all the money in the world can’t buy teenage happiness.
I worry constantly about my daughter’s lack of social life, particularly in the light of the lasting friends I made at school. Yet she has learned to be socially fluid, and makes other friends through afterschool ballet and drama. The issue is the lack of opportunities for her school friends who can’t afford books, let alone extra-curricular activities. We might have access to two worlds, but most of her friends don’t.
On the plus side, I have extensive access to her teachers, that’s rarely the case in private schools. Rather than the platitudinous written reports, we have face-to-face parent evenings. Teachers sit behind desks in the hall and we queue to talk to them with our children. My daughter’s teachers have eked out a passion for history and English and a surprising ability in maths and science. She has developed a flair for music and joined the choir and I have rarely met a teacher as dedicated as her drama teacher. What the school lacks in cash it makes up for in enthusiasm.
Today, I feel liberated from the guilt of denying my daughter a future. She is well-balanced, streetwise, emotionally robust and articulate. She doesn’t have to deal with the intense competition that comes with a place at one of London’s top private schools. By and large, she’s happy, cheerful and on track to gain good GCSEs. Later, when it comes to applying for a good university or job, I could find that my new-found faith in the state system has been misplaced. But for now, state school might well prove to be a blessing rather than a curse.