It has begun – and it’s relentless.
It happens at nursery drop-offs and pickups. At playdates and playgrounds.
At birthday parties and barbeques. And anywhere else where you might be unlucky enough to bump into an acquaintance with a child who turns 5 next fall.
“So, where is your daughter going to school?”
The Days Are Long…
…but the years are short.
Whoever came up with this was spot on.
Four years have flown by. In September of next year, our little girl needs to go to school. Cue in the eternal debate on state vs private schools.
It may be a function of living in Chelsea, but there seems to be a torrent of anguish and anxiety that has taken over the brain of every single parent within a five-mile radius.
The reason is simple. Everyone signs up to 5+ private schools when their children are born. As a result, most schools are 5 times oversubscribed. Pure math, nothing surprising here.
But instead of letting things shake out in a natural way (no, kids haven’t yet figured out a way to go to more than one school at once), panic ensues.
Short of putting up tents outside the school gates, freaked out moms and dads are resorting to every possible strategy to improve their offspring’s chances of getting into the “right” school.
There are stories of trying to “network” one’s way into a connection with the headmistress. Expressing eternal love for the school in monthly (!) letters, which also happen to provide a detailed download on little Emily’s stellar abilities.
Regularly dropping off cookies while “checking in” on the latest developments at the said school. We’ve even heard of parents who offer to make sizeable monetary donations, all in the hope of getting a chance to sign up for a £20k+ annual expense for the next 15 years.
The Wrong Crowd
My wife and I are somewhere between curious observers and reluctant participants in this whole process.
After some reflection, we’ve settled on a strategy that works for us. There’s a decent state school not too far away so we’ll play the catchment area lottery to see if we can get in.
If that doesn’t work, private it is. The good news is that there are a few excellent private schools nearby.
The bad news is that every tiger mom and alpha dad in the neighbourhood seem to have those same schools at the very top of their list – hence moving us to the reluctant participant category.
I’ll spare you the details of the assessment process – and the lengths some parents go to in order to prepare their children for it.
Suffice it to say that we refuse to make every detail of our daughter’s life about clearing the subjective bar set by people who should know better. Life is too short.
What I find truly fascinating, however, is that for many parents, the quality of education their child is going to get is at best a secondary concern in this whole process.
“This is the same school Prince William went to”
“Claudia Schiffer took her son there”
“Did you know that Hugh Grant is an alumnus?”
It took about five minutes to get a full download on Wetherby’s storied history from one of the dads in the playground when he found out our second child was going to be a boy.
I’m not sure what I was supposed to make of those factoids. Make a desperate dash for the headmaster’s office, begging him to give our yet-unborn son a spot? And if so, was it the Hugh Grant story that was supposed to seal the deal?
Yes, I watched Love, Actually a long time ago. No, that doesn’t qualify old Hugh for a spot on the list of role models for our son. Based on what I know about Hugh, I hope he never makes it on to that list.
Another day, another playground, another dad:
“We took our daughter to a birthday party and there were two Goldman MDs there”
“One of the parents is a senior partner at CVC”
Once again, I’m intrigued as to the inferences I am supposed to make here.
Do Goldman MDs happen to produce uniquely intelligent offspring? And do birthday parties take on a special meaning when attended by someone from private equity?
Signaling Virtue Status
Now, having only lived in the UK for a decade, I won’t claim to understand the path to breaking into the “aristocracy”. Far from it.
What I do know, is that at least as far as investment banking recruiting is concerned, the primary school you may have gone to makes zero difference.
Things that do make a difference are:
- Having gone to a half-decent uni (the Russell Group will do just fine)
- Having great grades (First class if you can swing it, otherwise a 2:1 will suffice)
- Solid A-levels (ideally, you’ve got a few * in there)
- Most importantly, displaying a solid work ethic and good judgment.
That’s it. There may even be a slight bias against candidates who are perceived as having come from well-to-do families.
You want to hire someone who will jump at the opportunity to work 100 hours a week and make money, not someone who will run back to the family compound after the first all-nighter.
I’ve also seen very little tangible evidence that sending your kids to the “right” school is a good way to get a leg up in your own career.
No, the Morgan Stanley MD won’t offer you a job just because your wife organized a great birthday party for the children.
The FTSE 100 CEO won’t care that his daughter is in the same class as you. Chances are, you probably won’t even meet him as he’s always away on business.
Hugh Grant won’t get you a role in his next movie, and Claudia won’t ask you to cooperate on her next venture just because you bumped into them at parents’ night.
Now, there are reasons all of the above might well happen.
The Morgan Stanley MD might well offer you a job in case you happen to be at Goldman and have a loyal client base that will follow.
The FTSE 100 CEO may well want to meet you because you are a McKinsey partner with fantastic insights about his business.
And Claudia just might want to collaborate – but only because your name is Victoria and you happen to be running a successful fashion label of your own.
The people that matter know this. The schools also know this but continue to perpetuate the narrative. Hey – they’ve got to make a living.
Granted, many folks view private schools for what they are – likely a better educational option for their children, especially in areas that lack decent state schools. A big financial outlay, compensated with tightening those budget screws elsewhere.
And yet, for many others, expensive private education has become yet another status symbol. Instead of buying a Ferrari or a Rolex, they flaunt Glendower Prep and North London collegiate. In the never-ending status arms race, the stakes continue to rise and are now well into millions of pounds.
Unlike a real arms race, this one doesn’t pose any immediate danger. But anyone taking part should remember that it was ultimately the arms race that finally bankrupted the Soviet Union – and brought it to its knees.
Don’t let the same happen to you.