“I saw Carrie yesterday,” announced my partner. “She’s still on maternity leave, but the baby’s almost a year now and she’s going back to work next week. She asked after you.”
Carrie – not her real name – was my favourite amongst the other middle-class mums who made up my NCT group, six full years ago. Back then we met in the group every week, and also, over the years, at the local market and playgrounds. Like most of the others, she was high-powered professionally, but thoroughly modest about it. In her early 30s, she was the youngest of the group, and I by far the oldest, but we had something in common that the others didn’t share; a kind of gauche, old-fashioned intellectualism, and a certain sheepishness about the crasser aspects of modern femininity. Amongst the yummy-mummies, we were definitely uncool; yet in our understated way we were actually the brightest of the lot. Or so I always imagined. We called ourselves feminists, for a start.
Carrie went back to work, and in due course got pregnant a second time. She still lives about 200 yards from us; but I haven’t seen her since shortly after her daughter’s birth, or barely at all since our first-borns started school. It’s down to one thing only, really. Private education.
There’s no getting away from it; when you love your child’s school – as I do, most of the time – you cannot really forgive someone who crosses the city with her child twice daily and pays out inordinate sums – which I know isn’t easy for her – just to keep her child out of it. And that’s before I even get started on the longer-term effects this decision will have on her and her family. Or even start thinking about society at large.
The latter point, I will leave to Will Hutton, who puts it clearly enough. Right now, Carrie still considers, probably, my son a suitable companion for her own. They always did play well together, being similar in temperament. Because of his birthday, my son is in the school year ahead though only just older, but no matter; probably all the better to aid her own with his homework, she might reason. My boy is a helpful, considerate sort.
How long though, before my child’s ease and familiarity with the local council estate kids, his occasional adoption of their vernacular, leads her to decide her boy is better off sticking to his own? Before her boy himself decides there’s something not quite the business about mine, starts condescending not-so-subtly, and you know, mummy, his hair and skin look a bit funny, just like all those other boys you don’t like me talking to, have you noticed?
At very least, maintaining our friendship would require me and my child to blank out the place which is now the centre of our lives; school and the gorgeous children in it. Those children, whose only disadvantage is, in some cases, severe poverty, make our day, and our school the vibrant, exceptional, international and happy place it is.
Yet I can’t help recalling Carrie’s occasional, uncharacteristically contemptuous comments, about babies at the Sure Start playgroup, or toddlers and their parents in the public playground, “probably fed coke in a bottle, left for hours in front of the telly” etc. I know she is still talking the same way now about my boy’s brilliant school-friends; indeed, they may be the very same kids. Her delusions and prejudice will be getting worse, year on year, as she spends more and more hard-earned money on avoiding us; and her children, what’s worse, will be getting the message.
How long could Carrie and I maintain a civil conversation, I wonder, while skirting all mention of the places our elder children spend the best part of their lives? How long could I refrain from revealing my conviction that her child’s nice prep school is actually one of the most socially pernicious and racially divisive institutions in the country? I’m not exaggerating. Private education is bad for her, for me, for our sons and for our city. It’s bad for everyone.