Toby Young Toby Young

Status Anxiety | 10 March 2012

Luring the posh parents

Last week, the West London Free School went out with offers to parents who’ve applied for places in September and it’s not an exaggeration to say my phone’s been ringing ever since.

The first category of callers are disappointed parents who haven’t been offered places. We had nine applications for every place this year, making us the most popular school in the borough, so there’s no shortage of angry mums. I tell them, truthfully, that there’s nothing I can do. School governors have a certain amount of latitude when it comes to admissions criteria, but once they’ve been finalised it is up to the local bureaucrats to apply them. Either the applicant has met the criteria or he/she hasn’t.

More tricky are those parents who’ve been offered places and can’t decide whether to take them up. For the most part, these are good, honest folk asking intelligent questions about genuine issues such as what will become of our school if Labour wins a majority in 2015. (Answer: we’ll be fine because our funding agreement cannot be terminated without seven years’ notice.) I always take the time to answer their questions as fully as possible because these are precisely the sort of parents — conscientious, thoughtful, responsible — that are an asset to any school. Incidentally, they’re by no means exclusively middle-class. By far the most thorough cross examination I’ve been given so far was by a West Indian single mum from a local council estate.

But a significant minority of calls are from upper-middle-class mums — usually friends of friends — who are nervous about sending their children to a state school. They will rationalise their anxiety by presenting it as a concern about whether the standard of education at our school can match that of a top independent school, but underlying this is a visceral fear that if they opt out of the private sector they and their children will suffer a huge drop in status.

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