State vs private: Our writer shares his experiences of both
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Richard Burton side-stepped school catchment chaos with his first two children by going private, only to embrace the state system with son number three. But buying near an outstanding Harpenden school was never going to be easy...
I never really thought about schools when I first went house-hunting in Hertfordshire with a one-year-old in my arms and another one in prospect.
I bought a three-bed detached on a nondescript commuter hill a few hundred yards from Kings Langley station and a couple of miles from the M1, both of which sped me into Fleet Street where I spent far too many days, nights and weekends.
My wife found the nursery place and I only knew where it was when a late shift gave me an hour to sit through a nativity play and I naturally assumed that when primary school time came it'd involve the one at the top of the road.
Most of the education had taken place at home and the eldest turned up on the first day reading fluently and capable of basic long division. It was only when it became clear the teachers weren't equipped to advance that that schooling became an issue.
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Until then, I hadn't given it much thought. This was the 'eighties and I was speaking to head-hunters about editorships up north, down south and overseas. It was only when I found myself juggling two pretty senior jobs on a national daily and a Sunday paper that I realised I was better off putting down roots.
Then again, I'd bought for the large garden and the modest pool, I'd added a study and my father-in-law had built a tree house in the orchard. I could get back from London in 45 minutes after a 3am finish and Michael Heseltine's publishing company offered me a deal to train their staff, a mere 50-odd minutes away via the M25 which I could hear from my garden.
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Added to that, I was spending my days writing headlines about how inflation was soaring away at 10 per cent, how we were about to enter the longest recession for 60 years and running features spreads in magazines on families facing "negative equity hell".
That's how the 'nineties began. Thatcher's National Curriculum was a few years old but John Major's Ofsted was still a couple of years away, so schools were chosen on reputation rather than accolade and there was comparatively little competition for places. Either way, the ones everyone was talking about still had catchments and I was damned if I was going to take a hit on the house just to be close to a school with smarter uniforms.
But when another term came and went and another parents' evening merely informed us, blandly, that he was "mixing well" I caved in to pressure to at least shop around.
So I did what anyone would when juggling three jobs in the days before expenses were queried - I went private and took advantage of the falling property prices that had stopped me moving and invested instead.
Enter another 'nineties trend: buy-to-let; easy access to loan capital at a time when prices were hitting the floor and sellers would take silly offers. The monthly rental on one or more apartments would cover any repayments and, fingers crossed, most of the school fees.
It wasn't without compromise though. The pick of the private options was Sacred Heart Junior, the prep school feeder for St Columba's College in King Harry Lane, St Albans, a nine-mile trip through the sometimes slippery, snowy and blind-bended lanes from Bedmond if you wanted to beat the traffic, or a slow slog through Chiswell Green if you didn't.
Haberdashers' in Aldenham had been another option. But I managed to wriggle out of that by claiming it was too far, instead of being honest and admitting it was too expensive.
By now I was writing negative headlines that predicted how league tables would create unseemly competition for places; safe in the knowledge that none of that would affect me as long as I had job(s) and a steady stream of tenants.
As luck would have it, we found a nearby family with whom to share the school run which eased the pressure and decided, in the absence of a school report on the school itself, we'd suck it and see.
The impact was immediate. We swapped smart-casual for collar-and-tie uniforms, clusters of tables for traditional rows of desks and parking in narrow streets and annoying neighbours for a car park I shared with the likes of Vinnie Jones and David O'Leary at pick-up.
There were no catchments here. The 4x4s would pour in from all over the place. Classroom party invitations would see us driving into North London or so far up the A41, the accents would change.
It was social thing too. The village school sports day saw the odd dad in a shell-suit yelling "get in there" during the sack race while the Heart mums tended to bring chairs and picnics as dads in Italian suits wandered around trying to get mobile signals.
The school was Catholic - which we weren't - but they had a humanist ethos, much to the chagrin of a few orthodox parents. The only time it became an issue was when my eldest queried why he was one of the few that didn't "get a wafer" during a ceremony he didn't understand. We packed one in his lunchbox and moved on.
By then, the so-called Common Inspection Framework for schools was in place and I was now writing headlines about how much it was costing to hire thousands of school inspectors and whether it would eventually extend to nurseries.
I make that point because reporting it had been my only real touchpoint of interest. I'd begun lecturing at a couple of London universities and was more interested in what was happening in further education to be honest. The school was high-performing, the parents active and supportive so it was one less thing to worry about. Son Number Two followed suit and I bit the bullet when it came to them stepping up to a secondary school.
While mine moved seamlessly across the tarmac to buildings with a better view of the Cathedral, most of the other dads at Under 12s football training would speak of little else. As did the mums on the touchline on Sunday mornings.
While I was signing a bigger cheque, they were signing the register of interest. A few ended up with second and third choices. One, a roofer whose lad would have been a real loss in defence, failed to get Watford Grammar or Parmiter's and was contemplating relocation. Another began reading up on home schooling and joined a kindred group called Education Otherwise.
I kept my head down and began to enjoy doing my share of the morning runs with, by now, a packed car full of articulate, confident and fairly fun-loving young Columbans.
Roll on the years. A new relationship, a new family and a new life in the City. When Son Number Three came along and joined us in a gated Thames-side apartment within the halo of Europe's financial hub but yards away from parts of the East End where you lock your doors at traffic lights, it was time to finally look at those tables, join the real world, and plan ahead.
You didn't really know your neighbours; the ones you heard coming and going on their mobiles, saw in lycra cycling to their banking jobs or partying on their balconies on Marathon day. But one mum I'd seen around for a while spoke to me for the first time in the street for no other reason than we both wore babies on our chests.
Their plan was to sell-up, she said, bank the cash "so we could move quickly" on a property when one came up near her parents, where they wanted to be because of the schools. The parents would even put them up while they looked.
And where was that, I asked. I wouldn't have heard of it, she said, not wanting to reveal too much to a stranger but liking the fact that the name sounded posh and countrified. It was Jersey Farm.
Her removal van arrived three weeks before mine. Bet it was her that gazumped me on that townhouse next to St George's.