Squeezed Middle: mind-mapping at the community school

Islington in the 1980s was the zenith of liberal-lefty education: now it's all too technical for me.

‘‘Could you tell us about your approach to the early-years curriculum?” asks a mother with a definite air of being better informed than I am. I stifle a yawn and try to distract Moe, who is determined to clonk another baby over the head with a toy dinosaur.

I’ve been at the primary academy open day for 15 minutes and I’m already wishing I were anywhere else. There must be over 100 parents crammed into the canteen. The head teacher is rather softly spoken (is that a good sign?) and I can hardly hear her above the noise of her prospective students. They are on the verge of being bored to tears and yet the question-and-answer session shows no sign of abating. Parental anxiety levels – and let’s be honest, they rarely bother the bottom of the chart – are palpably high.

Thus far, I have assumed a position of lofty indifference where schools are concerned. I am not going to be one of those parents who get all het up about it. Our local community school is just round the corner. It’s a nice, old-fashioned red-brick building – a little overcrowded, sure, but it will do just fine for Larry, who will start school next September.

Just when it looked as though things would be that simple, the primary academy came along and complicated things. It has just opened, an offshoot of an existing school elsewhere in the borough. The sponsor academy has an “outstanding” Ofsted rating, and the gleaming, brand-new site is five minutes’ walk away. I couldn’t resist coming along to have a look, just out of curiosity.

During a brief pause in her interrogation, the head teacher suggests we might want to have a look around. A long caravan of parents and buggies moves slowly out of the canteen and into the reception classrooms. There is no denying it looks great. The walls are newly painted a fresh mint green. Cute drawings by children adorn every surface. The best features are the giant glass doors, which look right out on to the park. By London standards, it is idyllic.

I stop for a moment to listen in on a Year One class. The teacher is talking about “mind maps”. I’m not sure what she’s on about and judging by the kids’ blank expressions I’d say neither are they. It’s all much more technical than anything I did at primary school. Islington in the 1980s was the zenith of liberal-lefty education: we spent a lot of time doing African dancing and celebrating Diwali. I loved it but admittedly still don’t know my times tables, or what exactly happened in British history and when. Walking through Trafalgar Square the other week, I loudly and confidently recounted to Larry the story of how Nelson beat the Spanish Armada.

I wonder if they spend much time mind-mapping at the community school. Somehow I doubt it. At their open day, the headmaster struck me as an admirably practical person. He told us what we needed to know and kept the question-and-answer session short. A man after my own heart.

That evening, Curly and I weigh up the options.

“The academy was very nice,” he says.

“Very clean.

“Almost surgical.”

“Hmm.” That settles it. It’s not our kind of place at all.

Mayor Of London Boris Johnson visits Pimlico Academy. Photo: Getty.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games