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.