23 Mar '13

News Why should we be ashamed of being pushy middle-class parents?

I have never been able to work out why nagging and badgering our way into a decent school for our children is something to apologise for

This is the biggest month in the calendar for anyone whose child is finishing primary school. The envelopes have dropped, the emails have arrived. The destination secondary school is set in stone. Eva got into a school that has 10 applications per place (humblebrag) so we imagine it must be good, or at least popular. But it's difficult to get to and looks like extremely hard work – they start at 8.30am, sometimes earlier, and don't finish till 5pm. Plus there's a lot of homework.

As a bit of a loafer myself, that level of industry strikes me as intimidating. On the other hand, it's got a sibling policy, so I don't have to worry about where Louise is going when she leaves primary in four years. And it's secular, and co-educational, and state funded.

Most of my friends and neighbours seem to have got their kids into a school that they are happy with too, which is faintly annoying. I always feel much better about a choice when other people are disappointed in theirs.

An ugly sentiment, I know, but the struggle for a school is full of ugly sentiments. Competitiveness is never greater. The permutations are endless and the battles are bitter. After a struggle with myself, my elder children went to an all girls' faith school, but I prefer co-education and secularism. But they prospered, so I can have no regrets. This time, it is my wife who has done most of the struggling to find a school for our daughters. She put an immense amount of time and effort into it and it has paid off (although it is actually our daughters' achievement, not ours).

We are, I suppose, those sharp-shouldered middle-class parents who think they can nag and badger their way into a decent school. Such parents are frequently derided, but I have never been quite able to work out why it is something to be ashamed of. Anyway, is there something to stop working-class parents nagging and badgering? Don't tell me they're too tired/don't have enough time/are the victims of cultural inheritance. Everyone is free to make an effort for their child.

Are those parents who can't be arsed better than those who try to control outcomes neurotically? I suppose at least the not-arsed brigade is innocent of the sin of hypocrisy. After all, those who claim passionate support for state schools often cave in when they end up in the local sink school and send their child to the private sector. (I put my first child into private school for a couple of terms, and I am still shamefaced about it.)

Atheists embrace faith schools. Determined proponents of co-education send their kids to single-sex schools. Vociferous advocates of multiculturalism hustle their kids into schools full of white middle-class children. Passionate supporters of localism bus their kids to somewhere five miles away. Parents are brought face to face with the gap between who they think they are and who they actually are, and it can be very painful.

I daresay it's all in vain anyway. I daresay Eva, and my other children would probably have been fine whichever school they went to. They have the social capital, after all, but their parents lack the self-confidence to let the chips fall where they may.

I like to focus on an article I read a few years back, about a middle-class family who sent one daughter to a posh private school and one to the dodgy local comp. Both children had trials to overcome – one the size and anonymity; the other the pressure of work and the resulting distress – but both came out fine and both did very well, taking with them different worlds of experience.

As my dad used to say, it will all come out in the wash. Of which I'm glad, because getting a school for your child still feels like a terribly dirty business.

• Follow Tim on Twitter @timlottwriter

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