Because the new spirit of localism may supercharge the premise of Madeleine’s Meet the Parents project: that education is better for all when it is socially comprehensive.
Of all the wisdom-inducing quotes I’ve read during lockdown, this one from Vladimir Lenin struck me most: “There are decades where nothing happens, and weeks were decades happen.” I am hoping this is about to be the case when it comes to communities supporting their local state schools – and that Camden will lead the way.
I have spent the last seven years running Meet the Parents, a project unique to Camden. It’s a very simple idea. We bring families from Camden’s secondary schools into local primaries to talk frankly about their school experience. Our events run every September, just as families are looking round schools during open weeks. The events are friendly and informal. People can ask whatever they want. When we started out, we had just parents giving the lowdown – hence Meet the Parents. But then we found out that teenagers can’t help telling it as it is. So now our panels are a mix of both.
Before doing this I spent twenty years as a BBC correspondent, and the same journalistic motivation drives me now: I want to give parents first-hand information on the local schools rather than them relying on old news. Negative reputations about schools often stretch back years and playground gossip gets more hyped every time someone shares it. Research commissioned by Camden council suggests that parental chat is the most significant factor in school choice in our area.
So I started Meet the Parents out of growing frustration. Many of the parents at my children’s primary school were still hearing the old stories, recycled year after year. Children were being tutored from an alarming age for endless exams for selective education. I am happy to report that in the school I know best there’s a growing number of parents now choosing local state secondaries rather than ones further afield – such as grammars and comprehensives offering specialist scholarships. But there’s still a significant minority of parents choosing private schools – something that’s traditionally been high across London because there are so many affluent parents in the capital.
But I detect change. Since the pandemic, the wealth that’s allowed the many local independent schools to thrive is under threat. Parents previously set on going private have approached me to ask if the local schools ‘really are ok’. They’re worried they can’t commit to years of school fees. There are anxieties about students travelling long distances on public transport post-lockdown. And there’s a growing tendency to stay local in other areas of our lives. So if you’re working from home and supporting local shops, why not do the same when it comes to the local schools? It’s one of the most powerful things you can do to strengthen your local community.
This applies to primary school choice as much as secondary, and we’ve recently been working with Camden to build confidence in our brilliant primaries. Some of the most creative schools are in the most disadvantaged areas of the borough. It’s here that teachers have to try that much harder to engage students, and are doing really extraordinary things. One school even puts on its own opera every year.
There are, though, understandable anxieties about whether our local schools can match the online learning provision of independent schools if Covid recurrs. There’s no doubt that state schools have faced huge challenges over the last few months. But, as Meet the Parents is forever reminding parents, schools change remarkably fast. They are quick studies because the accountability pressures they face are huge. So I am looking forward to these legitimate questions at our events, and hearing from students about how our local schools are adapting to our uncertain times.
I’m also making a film about Camden’s secondaries, because there’s still a good deal of ignorance about just how different they are from other parts of London. We are the only borough in London with no multi-academy trusts – chains of schools, often divorced from their local communities. All our secondaries are comprehensive. And, despite huge structural changes nationally in the last decade, Camden remains a pioneering education authority. Its school improvement arm, Camden Learning, which now funds Meet the Parents, brings teachers together to share ideas across the borough. All our schools our rated good our outstanding by Ofsted.
But for me, inspections and league tables are not what it’s about. Our events look at all things less measurable. What’s a school’s ethos? How strong is the pastoral support? How do students benefit from being able to walk to school, with friends in the neighbouring streets?
The young people who take part in our events are living proof of the kind of culture and experience they are being exposed to. Are they confident? Are they kind? Can they cope with the challenges that the future will throw at them? These are the things that matter most to me as a Camden parent.
I hope, as our outdated exams systems teeters from one year to the next, Meet the Parents can contribute to a broader debate. What does a good education really look like? For all the system’s limitations, I sincerely believe that Camden’s schools are doing their best to create the rounded citizens our community needs.
Madeleine Holt is the founder of Meet the Parents. Follow on @MeetParents
The COVID-19 health crisis has burned our economic and cultural landscape much like a forest fire. But across a charred, razed environment, strong green shoots inevitably emerge.
CAMDENIST is a new collaborative local media platform, currently in beta mode and launching soon. Born from the smoldering ashes of this unprecedented era, it will provide fertile support for the regeneration of our communities, businesses and cultural spaces in the times ahead.
Worth following, too.