Vigilante parents fight middle class turf wars

woman drinking red wine
… Merlot-heavy dinner parties where friends tell me the exact yardage from a particular school gate they will have to buy or rent in to beat the school’s catchment and admissions criteria …


How far wold you go when your child’s future is at stake, asks Nick Buglione

It is a rare, and slightly troubling, day when I say to myself “That Giles Coren has a point”. Smugly sat behind his Murdoch paywall at The Times, our Giles recently went on a rant against the “middle class hypocrites” who have “stolen my daughter’s place at our local primary” and “forced” him to go private.

What Coren has highlighted is perhaps the principal obsession of the modern metropolitan parent, played out equally fiercely here in Lambeth – schools admissions and the predominantly middle-class, monied, manipulation of school selection. Primary or secondary.

I have three young kids in our local Catholic primary and, without even wanting to, am encouraged into the turf-war game, where people like me jettison any morals they may hold to go all ends up to get their kids into a good school, regardless of who they metaphorically trample over to get their way.

I have sat at Merlot-heavy dinner parties while friends tell me the exact yardage from a particular school gate they will have to buy or rent in to beat the school’s catchment and admissions criteria. I have listened while someone muses on whether anything from a nut allergy to a lisp gets their kid higher up the list, and even heard people objecting to new housing builds – including dedicated social housing – as it would make getting into the nearby school trickier. Any short trip onto Mumsnet forums shows the intensity of the debate.

For me, school admissions are like performance enhancing drugs in sport – you may not start out wanting to “dope”, but everyone else is doing it so you “must” join in. Except. of course, you don’t … but, of course, almost everyone does (if they can afford it).

I know strident lefties who forget all sense of equality when it comes to their kid. Did someone mention Dianne Abbott? The fact that out of the same mouths come expressions of outrage at the gentrification of Brixton’s railway arch businesses, is for me, highly ironic.

Lambeth schools decide admission on set criteria, in descending order – looked-after children; siblings of children in the school; children with exceptional medical or social needs; children of school staff and, last but definitely not least, distance (as the crow flies).

For a Church school, in our family’s case Catholic, it’s much the same with “Catholic” and “baptised” inserted and … wait for it … “the strength of evidence of commitment to the faith demonstrated by levels of attendance at Mass on Sundays”.

So it’s fascinating to see how Mass and liturgy classes swell around the time nursery or school places are up for grabs. And how many surprising conversions to the faith happen to the same timetable.

According to a recent survey, one in four families moves house to secure a school place and one in six say they have rented or bought a second property for the same reason. Of parents with kids aged four to 18, 5 per cent cheerfully admitted they had rented a second property (by definition temporarily) … which, by the way, is pretty close to fraud, especially if (or when) they decamp back to their nice big house in leafier areas once the first sibling gets in.

Camden has apparently seen parents using mail-drop addresses for applications. Vigilante parents (who didn’t get in) go feral to “out” the perceived fraudsters … it’s quite a battle out there. In most cases, proof of council tax payment and electoral roll registration is required, but even that can be played.

The result? Back to Mr Coren, arguing that there is no such thing as a good ordinary state school as they are artificially populated with “spoilt middle-class white kids”, that we have “selection by income through the back door” and that the middle classes have destabilised “the very notion of a local school by coring out the catchment areas and then abandoning them”.

While he sits all self-righteous indignation at The Times, some people, including those I know and like, could take a look in the mirror …

Nick Buglione has lived in Brixton, bar a five-year sabbatical in Peckham, for over 25 years. By day, a charity content manager, by night an occasional blogger at


  1. If only it was as easy as gping to your local school. Our kids attended the local nursery, but then had to travel to Balham to attend primary as our nearest local state schools were all church schools, which I didn’t want them to attend and the closest community schools (Sudbourne and Rosendale) were completely oversubscribed by the type of parent described above, using every trick in the book to get their kids in (even inventing special needs) . Our nearest local community secondary (800 yards away) was Dunraven, but they too were oversubscribed, so we were given a place at a new school, Elm Green, in West Norwood – two bus rides away!! After three muggings and numerous incidents of bullying on the buses, and fighting in the school, we decided to leave London for greener pastures (I’m a lifelong Londoner), a very hard decision to take. Our children then went to the local state secondary school, in walking distance, where almost every child in the town goes to. It’s not been perfect as a school, but it’s definitely the right decision to get away form the mad competitiveness of the London school system where you can rarely go to your local state school!

    • To be fair, both Sudbourne and Rosendale are some distance from Dunraven, so they would likely be oversubscribed by people who already lived nearer than you did too.

  2. No school is perfect: all will have strengths and weaknesses, good and bad teachers. Kids who have love, stability and receive the right messages at home do well in school. Those who don’t are more likely to struggle.

    As a society we already dump too much responsibility for the good upbringing of kids onto schools. This kind of panic over which school a child goes to – as if it matters more than anything else – is illustrative of this.

    These concerned mummies and daddies would do well to remember that the impact a school is able to make is minuscule compared to the behaviour of the parents themselves!

  3. Next time you’re at one of your merlot-heavy dinner parties, challenge anyone’s claim that their local school is not good by pointing out that 90% of all Lambeth’s education provision is judged good or better. Unfortunately, such assumptions are often down to snobbery and racism, so if they remain unconvinced, find different people to have dinner with.

    • ^^exactly. They like diversity when it means eating delicious stuff from the market but aren’t willing for their kids to go to school and make friends with the children of the people serving up their jerk chicken or coffee.

  4. This situation could be fixed by a random ballot amongst applicants who don’t fit any of the first four criteria.

    On second thoughts, no politician would dare suggest it because the lawsuits to stop any impartial process would come flying in …

  5. The point is though, your child’s future isn’t at stake. The local schools are just fine. They have dedicated and energetic teachers, amazing diversity, and are learning so much about life as well as their ABCs. You don’t need to lie and cheat your way into one of the ‘better’ schools. It’s just outrageous snobbery, where people who are happy to enjoy Brixton’s ‘vibrant’ bars and restaurants are unwilling to rub shoulders with locals once they settle down here. And I say this as a local with kids in the perfectly fine, nearest-to-my-address, state primary and nursery, where my kids and I have made lifelong friendships. I’d have missed out on so much if I’d have got sucked into the school admissions nonsense. If it’s not good enough for you, move to the suburbs.

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