’They’re already looking at sites, trying to work out how many kids you can fit in an abandoned Zavvi’
Quentin Shears, 48, is a partner in Newt UK, the recently rebranded Hertfordshire-based quantity surveying subsidiary of US construction giant Gator Corp. While Quentin has been coming to terms with his new masters’ work culture, they have been deciding quite what to do with their new outpost in Austerity Britain. As the practice’s schools expert and a much-put-upon father of two, Quentin has spent much of the past week explaining the intricacies of the British education system - such as why public schools are private - to his American boss, John Gatz Jr …
I can’t help feeling that the government’s free schools policy sounds a lot less appealing than the extremely expensive schools policy that preceded it. And while councils know where to go to get their costs managed by skilled professionals, this isn’t necessarily true of groups of parents turned educational reformers.
“We’ve got to get someone on the inside, Quentin,” said John Jr, after he’d called me into his office to discuss matters. “There’s a group going round, known locally as the Continuity PTA. They’re already looking at sites in the town centre, trying to work out how many kids you can fit in an abandoned Zavvi. Dr Parsloe, the head of RE at St Aloysius, is ready to join them, and they say Marjorie the lollipop lady is open to offers. Apparently she’s bitter as hell she’s never been given an OBE and is ready to move to the highest bidder. But, hey, that’s the open market.”
I looked at him, alarmed. There was something about the phrase “someone on the inside” that concerned me.
“Quentin,” he said, leaning forward, “I want you to infiltrate these people. Find out what their game is. This could be big for us. You fit their profile - you have that hunted, oppressed look that marks out men with young children. Plus, I remember you saying you turned your garage into a utility room last year. That kind of experience could prove invaluable in today’s education market.”
So it was that two days later I found myself being ushered into the opulent drawing room of Greg Sewett, a City lawyer, father of Cosimo, Tabitha, Tyger and Aphrodite, and leader of the group Parents United in Serving Hertfordshire’s Youth. “Great to see you Quentin,” he greeted me warmly. “The more people we get on board, the more great things we can do here. You see,” he added darkly, “parents are the future.”
Parents were also, it seemed to me, the furniture. The drawing room was teeming with them, on every chair, divan and ottoman, a mass of anxious humanity united in fear of the local state schools and the prohibitive cost of educating a brood of four privately.
“You can’t afford to mess around when it comes to your own kids,” said Graham, a management consultant who was squeezed next to me on an antique chaise longue. “But I’ve already forked out for a new Ford Galaxy - and there is a recession on.”
The meeting surged forwards on a wave of shared enthusiasm, which was entirely unfettered by anything as obstructive as a shared approach to education. Greg was very keen on a free school he’d read about in Sweden and its “traditional pedagogy”, which apparently means they use blackboards. “We need to get back to basics. Let’s get Latin back into the state system.”
“Yes, what I like about Sweden,” said Lucy, a stay-at-home mother of three turned charity entrepreneur, “is the way they let the children decide the curriculum. If the teachers aren’t working out, I’ve heard the kids have the constitutional right to sack them.”
“Yes, absolutely,” agreed Greg. “But let’s not forget about discipline. A firm hand is what’s missing from our current system.”
“Yes, exactly,” said someone else. “And we must offer opportunities for all! Equality of excellence!”
“Absolutely, yes,” said Greg. “That’s why it’s so important we do Latin. Everyone deserves the chance to study Latin.”
“Exactly,” said Lucy. “I know we’re all eager to help develop the syllabus. But surely the first thing we need is a building - and some consultants who can offer their services absolutely free of charge.”
“Absolutely, yes,” I heard a voice say. Disconcertingly, I realised it was mine. I’m not sure that’s what John Jr had in mind, but it just seemed like the thing to do.
As told to Nick Jones