Friendship Files is a new column by Telegraph Family in which people share their friendship dilemmas and experiences. It is published every Monday.
It was three years ago that the trouble really started. I was telling my best friend about the state primary my seven year-old daughter had started at in the village we’ve moved to from London. After I’d told her about the wonderful art on the walls, done by the children, the fact that each child was encouraged to play an instrument, study a language and take part in the summer play , she seemed to take a deep breath as she fixed me with a glinty stare.
“It sounds sweet but I’m worried," she said. "You’ve moved next to one of the best prep schools in the country. Most parents would die to send their kids there. I think you have a moral responsibility to send her there, not to a state school, however sweet it is.
She went on to describe the advantages her youngest sons, aged nine and 12, enjoy at their school, which is one of London’s pushiest prep schools. She also has another son doing A levels at one of the country’s oldest, most famous boarding schools.
My friend was privately educated and I know she’s not even considered state school for her kids. I went to a local state school until I was ten; a private school for GCSEs, then back to state school for my A levels. I have, truly, seen inside both systems. And I know where I want my children to be.
This was not, of course, the first time school choice had reared its head. But it was the first time she had overtly, aggressively, even, criticised my decision to send my daughter and her elder brother, who is 16, through the state system. At the time, I was so shocked, I quickly changed the subject and made an excuse to leave.
Afterwards, I was fuming. I could have reeled off a list of reasons why I don’t send my children to private schools, because honestly, I can easily afford it. But social inclusivity, and a sense that our painfully divided society does not benefit from a two-tier education system is just the start of it. And while I knew we had different views on the matter, I hadn’t imagined that my choice of schools would ruin one of my oldest friendships.
Our once-robust, always easy childhood friendship has withstood house-moves, separate universities, one divorce (I’m married a second time) and my move away from London. We have always turned to each other in times of difficulty and I have always been able to talk honestly to her about anything that's wrong in my life. But over the past couple of years, our friendship feels fragile to the point of broken.
We avoid one another, and when we meet, are polite in a way we never where in the past, as if our school choices say much more about us than simply education. Our sons once bundled around as toddlers together, almost identical in matching snow-suits, but now I can see that the fact they’ve been educated in separate systems has altered their friendship, too.
Her teenage son has developed that inimitable public school swagger, and sense of superior entitlement that costs upwards of £30k a year. I find myself bristling, slightly, around him. When she tells me about his choral tour to Venice, or school trips to Kenya, I find myself recoiling from the sense she’s instilling in him that he owed the earth.
Perhaps she finds my son less polished, less confident, in contrast, because the fact is, he is. But what he lacks in that extraordinary sense of confidence that public school seems to lend, he more than makes up for in empathy and sensitivity.
I’m relieved his friends genuinely are from a cross section of society, not just the so-called elite. But when I told my friend about my son's best school friend, who grew up on a council estate with a single mother, and who has just won a place at Cambridge, she seemed to glaze over. She quickly moved on to list the achievements of her nephew, who is at the same school as her son, who got 12 A* GCSEs.
I could almost handle her disapproval of my school choices, but it’s her competitive judgement, and her social distaste which is breaking our friendship.
To me, she seems trapped in a highly privileged bubble, inside which she has made a decision to firmly remain. I want my children to understand the world, and realise the advantages they have been born with.
But, as our younger children go through the education system, I fear these choices will underline such a fundamental difference in our values that I'm not sure our friendship will ever really recover.
Do you have advice for our writer, or know anyone who has been through something similar? Let us know in the comments section below.
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