Luring The Posh Parents

Toby Young wants to tempt parents from the private sector

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West London Free School

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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.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing they invariably let slip that Leo or Elodie has also been offered a place at Latymer Upper School or Notting Hill and Ealing, just in case I think they’re only considering the West London Free School because their child isn’t clever enough to get into a good London day school. For another, they nearly always stress that they ‘really support’ what I’m trying to do at the school, thereby making it clear that they’re considering it for idealistic reasons rather than out of dire financial necessity.

I do what I can to allay their fears, but it’s tricky when they won’t come clean about what their real anxieties are — probably because they haven’t admitted them to themselves.For me to tell them that their social standing won’t suffer a calamitous blow if their children end up at a state school would prompt an angry denial, since any display of status anxiety is itself a low status indicator. So I have to play along, telling them about our curriculum, the amount of homework we set, our sports facilities etc.

What makes these conversations particularly frustrating is that I know that 90 per cent of them will end up staying in the private sector. One of the most frequent criticisms of free schools is that they only appeal to posh parents. Our school in particular, with its emphasis on Latin and competitive sport, is dismissed as a faux private school that has nothing to offer children from deprived backgrounds. But judging from our first cohort of 120 children, that’s not true. We were deluged with applications last year from parents of children at fee-paying schools, but less than half a dozen took up our offers. By contrast, about a quarter of the children who did accept are on free school meals.

That may change this year and I hope it does. I’ve always thought that, far from being a criticism, one of the best arguments in favour of free schools is that they’ll tempt parents away from the independent sector, leading to more schools with genuinely comprehensive intakes. But I fear it will take more than small class sizes, strong discipline and traditional subjects to persuade upper-middle-class parents to take a chance on state schools. Perhaps we need to do some more work on the uniform. When I had lunch at Harrow a couple of years ago to discuss a possible partnership, the headmaster strongly advised me against pretentious headgear. ‘Don’t have those,’ he said, gesturing to a pile of boaters in the dining hall. We may have to reconsider.

Toby Young

originally printed in The Spectator and reprinted with kind permission

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator and co-founder of the West London Free School.


9th March 2012