Dot writes: a couple of months ago, when I was still on maternity leave, I tried taking the boys to a toddler group that’s held in our local library every Friday morning. It wasn’t a great success: any play arrangement that relies on Hugh staying at one end of an open-plan space and not zooming off to rearrange the non-fiction section is doomed to failure. But I did have an enjoyable conversation with another parent, who turned out to be a former PhD student of a professor in my department, and who was there with the youngest of his quite large family. We got to talking about schools. My new acquaintance’s children attended Dalkey School Project, and we mused on the competition to get in, how ridiculously early you have to put your children’s names down, and how lucky I am to have excellent numbers for both my boys. (The system is that you apply as soon as the umbilical cord is cut and are given a Pre-Enrolment List (PEL) number which determines your position in the pecking order for your year. By cleverly giving birth in the autumn I have obtained numbers for Hugh and Frank that pretty much guarantee they will get places.) The conversation then turned to the state of the country, NAMA, etc. My acquaintance was half Danish and had grown up abroad. He was unsentimental about this country and was considering whether to leave; he could see little future in Ireland now. “But”, he said, putting the case for staying, “we did get the kids into DSP.”
We may in fact end up tossing away our privileged PEL numbers, as Ken is quite keen the boys should go to one of the local Church of Ireland schools. The boys next door attend Glenageary Killiney National School (the cool people call it GKNS – it’s all about initials, with schools round here) and it has a very good reputation. We haven’t actually visited these schools we are thinking about, though I do intend to before little Hugh actually dons a uniform in a bit over two years’ time.* At the moment we know them by what other parents say of them. My chief sources of advice when Hugh was a baby – the breastfeeding group and my yoga class – were all for DSP. Our neighbours now and people I know from church are keener on GKNS. We gather that DSP, as an Educate Together school, is all about Nurturing the Whole Child and that means not pushing too hard on the academic side, such as reading. GKNS is apparently more traditional. Which, I wonder, will suit Hugh? Assuming he carries on as he is – not notably precocious, quite fond of books but very bad at sitting still – would he do better being Nurtured Holistically and thus not put off learning or labelled as a naughty boy? Or would he benefit from being taught as early as possible to knuckle down? These decisions are so important and yet they have to be made on a basis of guesswork, cod psychology and blind hope. At least we get to make a choice among several attractive alternatives.
My own parents were highly moral about my schooling and sent me to the local primary school in our own village. Middle class parents tended to take their children out and send them to the school down the road (or, if they could afford it, a fee-paying school); which left the local school struggling to keep up its numbers and escape closure. Two successive head teachers had nervous breakdowns. These days, ironically, I gather it’s the school in my village that’s doing quite well and the school down the road that’s taken a dive. Anyway, my parents were unusual, and would be even more unusual now, in being prepared to act for the common good rather than pursue individual interest. It’s obvious that if the parents who are committed to education compete to squash their children into a few ‘good’ schools, leaving the other schools to deal with the disengaged and the disappointed, the worse get worse and society as a whole loses out (because of the creation of an educational underclass who are harder to employ and, for those at the bottom, more likely to commit crime). One of the things I’d like to see in British politics, and am not sure I ever will see, is a party who are prepared to deal with this problem (while leaving Higher Education the hell alone). In Irish politics, however, I find I don’t yet know what I want to see. The reduction of the role of the Catholic Church, I suppose (because of the abuses, and because it’s not fair to prioritize Catholics for school places, especially in areas where there are no non-Catholic schools). Maybe I don’t yet feel enough of a part of this place to care so much for the common good; I just want my own family to get by. It’s ok here. We can get the kids into DSP.