Parental choice?

For those with children in their last year at nursery, it’s decision time. Time to decide which school you want your child to attend next year. That’s the point right – that parents have a choice – politicians are always promising us that. But of course the final decision is not ours – it lies with officials at the local council whom we have never met. Unfortunately though, there is still the pretence that we decide, so parents must spend from now until January worrying about what schools to select and what order to put them in. Of course I’m being cynical – many parents will get their children into the school of their choice and it is certainly worth investigating all the options. But what should you be looking for.

It was HelloitsGemma’s post on her experience so far that made me think about this.  I interviewed Chris Woodhead when he was chief inspector  of schools. We were looking round a primary school that had been turned around and I asked “What does make a good school?” and he said ” The headteacher!” Simple as that. As a journalist I visited several schools that had been turned around – and it was true – the headteacher stood out a mile. Like the girl in the ballet class who really can dance.

Many parents worry about class sizes. Having been educated in a class of 30 all through primary and secondary education and still scraped into university I am not worried about that. Those who have been in private education seem horrified. But these days almost all state schools seem to have class sizes of up to 30 they certainly do in London – all the church schools around here are also 30. As they are oversubscribed, there would be an outcry if they reduced sizes.  Tony Blair pledged to reduce class sizes to 30, or less, back in 1997 and last year the average was apparently 26.

But I think what makes more difference to the atmosphere of a school  is the number of classes. If it’s a one class entry it is maybe less intimidating in the playground than two or three classes starting at the same time and the headteacher really will know every child by name. In reception and the early years, schools have classroom assistants helping with reading, writing, maths etc so, unless you are unlucky, it’s not really a ratio of 30 to 1.  If you are worried about this and can spare the time then volunteer to go in and help with reading once a week. They will love you. And if your school is sorted, the Evening Standard has been running a fantastic campaign to get people to go into schools in London that desperately need this kind of support and help with reading  – you have to commit to a few sessions a week.

To be honest I think all good schools are about parental ( and community) support. My son’s just started in a class of 30 and I think is very well supported – by three classroom assistants  and as it is a one class entry so the school itself is smaller.

We were lucky and got into a school we like – it wasn’t our first choice – but we put it down first as the school we liked more has a catchment area of only a couple of neighbouring roads – not including ours. We didn’t stand a chance and put it second. So our first choice became a church school where catchment area was less important than church involvement – as we’ve been going to the church since our kids were Christened in it this seemed a reasonable idea. It’s not for everyone. But I like the confidence children get from this feeling of belonging and being loved and assemblies and hymn singing celebrating harvest festival and Christmas without fear it might be banned. And I have to admit after the initial embarrassment  I secretly enjoy them suddenly bursting into “Sing Hosanna” or ” Our God is so BIG” as we’re out shopping and freaking people out!

In fact, I went to a church primary myself as did my OH but I know for a fact our parents were not questioned about their church attendance or involvement. We just went there!  So our kids school is very sweet and quite old fashioned and you know they will teach them to be nice to each other – if nothing else. Some nursery mums said they were a bit jealous of the school we got into because of its longstanding reputation,  all I could say was just because it’s got a good reputation doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

Any school will have elements you like and elements you don’t.  Because ours has a good reputation and has some quite high profile parents, I worry they rest on their laurels a bit, they spend too much time on competitions and not enough on times tables and are not very open to new ideas – using emails to contact parents, allowing girls to wear trousers in winter rather than itchy tights etc. And the endless competitions. Sorry have I mentioned that.

Stats-wise several schools that were underperforming a few years ago  have now caught up and in fact taken over ours. But our school still has that reputation.  I’m not moaning – just trying to point out that wherever you end up you will always worry about your child’s education and whether the school is right for them – some people do get into high achieving schools and take their kids out because it’s too much – though this is probably more usual at secondary level.

For us the good certainly outweighs the bad so I cannot complain. This year we got in under the sibling policy ,but I still didn’t want to count my chickens until that email came through last May and I well remember the stress first time round – saying to my husband if she doesn’t get into that school we are stuffed. Because guess what, the one nearest – by a  hundred yards – and with plenty of vacancies is considered the worst in the borough.

I’ve had long talks  with friends who have got into a slightly-less-good-but-definitely-OK church school is- there’s safety in numbers. Easy for me to say I know, but as someone with a social conscience I like the idea of being able to help bring a school up ( you still need a good head who will bring in good teachers of course!) But if you have three or four families in a year ( more would be better admittedly) who are motivated and able to help  you can make a difference – organising school fairs to fundraise, connecting with local businesses and improving facilities; going into the school to read once a week, using connections to think up interesting school trips that won’t cost parents too much money.  Of course it’s hard work and I totally accept you shouldn’t have to do this ( but you shouldn’t have to move house either!)and noone wants their child to be part of an experiment-  but then you have done something wonderful for other children and society.

And hopefully as the school gets a better reputation , more like minded families will apply the following year. It may sound naive but it has been done successfully – most publicly by Fiona Millar ( Alistair Campbell’s other half) –  who got together with a couple of mates and decided the only way was to change the ethos of their local secondary school in Queens Park. I have to say doing it at that level really is brave.

But my advice to those making tough choices and concerned they will not get the top schools on their list would be to  talk to other local mums you know who are doing the same thing,  all decide on an “acceptable” school you think you might get offered a place at and include it on your list. If several of you end up there you can make a go of it and make sure you are also on the waiting list at the school you really want – with any luck by then you may even be happy to stay where you are.

The experts say it is the home environment that dictates the success of any child’s early education – and as another mother has pointed out even if you  get into a good school there will still be plenty of parental supervision of the homework they will be given – to make sure the school stays at the top of the tables. So wherever they end up, you will be helping them succeed.

A good friend put down five schools this time last year and didn’t get a single one – they were all oversubscribed.  She’s a highly successful, engaged working mum, she had researched and chosen – but she had not had a plan B. And she got stung. It could have been any one of us. By then even the “compromise” school other friends had got places in, that they were slightly worried about, was full. The only school left was known as the worst in the whole borough ( the one near us but nowhere near her) . She has gone private – though she was on the waiting list there too for a month or so and this is obviously not an option for everyone.

The best advice I can give is do your research and keep your options open and  at least consider being ” political” about which schools you put down to give yourself a chance. I hope my experiences will prove helpful. Something will work out, because as parents you will make sure that something does, but it is a hideously stressful time. Good luck.


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4 Responses to Parental choice?

  1. Kate says:

    Your post is very true. My son is in year 2 and when we applied for him, the county only allowed us ONE CHOICE. The year before, the nearest school, which is CofE, was massively over subscribed and although we are only quarter of a mile away, people on our road who had not attended church did not get in. I couldn’t risk choosing that school as originally, some of our neighbours had been sent to schools some distance away.

    We looked around the community schools, which select on distance rather than church attendance/baptism. (There are no catchments, partly because around 2/3 of primary schools in the area are voluntary aided). We visited one that, at the time, a lot of people didn’t actually know existed or at least was a school. Very untrendy but we loved it. It didn’t have quite as good SATs as some others but the Ofsted noted they took higher than average levels of pupils with SEN. We took a risk, despite being nearly 2 miles from it. We got in. Big relief. I am so glad we did, as my son has always loved it. The next year, we reapplied for my daughter and like you, worried that we wouldn’t get in but we did. However, this year, they were oversubscribed and we wouldn’t have done! The results have improved since I initially looked round the school and I do know what you mean – the head teacher changed just before my son started there and she is fab. The big test is the rest of this week as Ofsted are coming. I really hope they give a good result as I really couldn’t have asked for a better start to my children’s education. It’s just a bit further than the local church school in walking distance (which I did visit, just to see, and didn’t like as much as the school we chose).

    SATs and Ofsteds are not the be all and end all. Visiting a school will give you an idea of whether you think your child will do well there as not every child will suit every school. If that makes sense.

  2. thanks for your comments which echo this post.
    I think your advice is good. Where I live the best performing school is a church school with one class of 30. Most of the LA schools are 90 intake. My local is 90 intake this year. Even if I were able to find a group of like minded parents I think we would be swimming against a tide. The other factor that as a working parent, the demands of school; homework, come dressed as book day, make a something afternoon, attend an assembly/sports days. On top of school holidays which do not match ‘work’ holidays. Therefore, finding the extra time to go into school is a great idea and something I might achieve once a term (if I was lucky). The system needs to be better – parental involvement is important but for me it can’t be the significant driver.

    • I absolutely agree about the book day/ assembly/sports day demands. I’m not the only person to say I need a PA just to deal with my kids’ extracurricular activities and that doesn’t even include after school swimming, piano etc. I used to work full-time but now freelance which means some weeks are full-time work and some weeks are full-time mum, but most are mixed. The whole thing is fraught and I certainly don’t have time to help with reading at school either, but there will be people at every school who are not working and can be encouraged to help if they are needed. Apparently Peter Andre volunteered to help with reading as part of the ES scheme so noone should feel they are not qualified!

  3. In our area you have county, city, and private schools and of course, your option of home schooling. If you want to go to a private school, which includes schools within a church there is tuition. If you live in the city limits you can attend either the city or county school in your county. If you live in the county then you would normally attend the school in your designated area.
    We live in the county and wanted our children to attend the city school system. The city program is better funded and offers more to the children. In order to get into the city system, they have a ‘lottery’ where they draw county children’s names to see who gets in. This is over and above the city student’s enrollment.
    For a county student to attend the city schools means that parents have to drive them in and pick up each day because school buses do not pick up outside of the city limits. This is a major commitment.
    Our choices for wanting our children in the city was because of the class choices, college prep courses offered, and college scholarships available. My son has been in the city system since K5 along with my daughter. I chose to home school my daughter through a private Christian school program for her 7 and 8th grade. Next year, she hopes to attend the city High School to finish her schooling.

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