To Pray or To Pay

I met my old boss last week for a colleague’s leaving drinks at The Marylebone Pub. He’s originally from Norn Iron, married to a girl from Belfast and has settled in London with his four kids. Before long we were sharing notes about childcare, accents and primary schools.

We have recently moved to Barnes, one of the so-called ‘Nappy Valley’ areas of London. That is, an area where bugaboos outnumber automobiles and other modes of transport, and where that oft-quoted entity known as ‘yummy mummy’ resides. We didn’t actually move here for its Nappy Valley credentials, but now we are here we can see the huge advantages for kids – the facilities, the quality of schools and childcare, the general baby-friendliness of it all. The downside of living in Nappy Valley areas, however, is that there is generally tough competition for school admissions, particularly faith schools it seems.

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Some parents apparently give serious thought to which primary school their child will go to before they have even given birth. Many primary (and secondary) schools are oversubscribed, particularly in cities, and obviously this issue is even more compounded in London’s ‘nappy valley’ areas where there are just so many children in the area who want to get into the high achieving local school. In fact, the admissions criteria is usually so strict that even if your child goes to a nursery linked to the school of your choice their place isn’t necessarily guaranteed. This is why parents-in-the-know plan ahead and find out what they need to do for their child to get a coveted place in a ‘good school’, long before they need to apply, which is in the autumn of the year when they will turn four.

I have only started to appreciate the complexity of the whole school admission malarkey now that I live in Barnes and talk to other mums-in-the-know about it. And so the conversation went with my old boss, who has been through the school admissions nightmare four times (apparently it doesn’t even get easier with each one, as having a sibling at the school isn’t one of the admission criteria). ‘So, do you go to mass?’ he asks me. ‘Mass? Well, of course I do. In fact, I’ve just joined the folk group’. He was thrilled. ‘Brilliant. Brilliant’, he says. ‘And at what age did Maggie get baptised?’ ‘She was actually only 4 weeks old, ’cause John’s uncle is a priest and–’. He stops me there. ‘Perfect’. No need for further explanation. It was evidently a good thing that I was a mass-goer, and even better that I had proof through her early christening.

He explained: some over-subscribed faith schools have a points-based entry system, which gives points for early baptisms and parents who help in church. Nothing wrong with the principle of course, so long as the enthusiasm of parishioners is motivated by faith rather than the fate of a school place. I read about an oversubscribed Catholic school in Croydon, South London which was told to change its admissions policy by England’s admissions watchdog, as they argued it was discriminatory. In their investigation they were told that some parents were deliberately carrying out church activities in order to gain extra points. They heard evidence of one parish where there were 100 children on the waiting list to be altar servers!

So, after all this effort, what happens if your child still doesn’t get a place? The general consensus is that you pay for them to be privately educated at a high achieving public school. ‘So’, I said to my old boss somewhat incredulously, ‘you pray or you pay, is that it?’ He smiled. Now I was getting it. ‘Precisely’.

The Old Woman who lived in a shoe

I’m in a financial predicament. Ironically this is in part due to the incredible maternity package offered by my employer which has thus far enabled me to take eleven months off and be considering another two, much of which time has been at full pay. (Apparently the maternity policy was written by a woman and signed off by a woman, but that’s beside the point). The predicament had occurred because, despite affording me deliciously long maternity leave, my employer has failed to set me up on the right tax code. I now face a hefty £3,000 bill from HMRC for underpaid tax and the prospect of going back to work one month earlier than planned in order to pay it.

Not a major issue, you’d think, considering how long I have enjoyed being off so far. But with my tax code issues finally rectified, I will be returning to work to a lower wage (albeit my proper wage!) Coupled with the high cost of childcare – a benefit of living in one of London’s ‘Nappy Valley’ areas – it is looking very financially dodgy indeed. No need for a degree in economics to work out the Profit and Loss calculation on this one: Lower Wage minus (Hefty Childcare + High Rent) = much less money than budgeted for Life In General.

My maternity package is so good, it would make more sense to get pregnant again and get on maternity leave quick! I would almost consider it if it wasn’t so….wrong. I do hope to have a big family some day, but surely this shouldn’t be the motivation behind it. Can you picture it- ‘Mummy, why do I have so many brothers and sisters?’ ‘Maggie, darling, your father and I just couldn’t afford it any other way’.

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