Arlo is four. Which means that this year, we have had the pleasure of going through the primary school application process for the first time. At times, it has felt like one of those classic initiation moments of parenting. And at times, it has felt like an immense decision.
I’ve been writing this post bit by bit since November last year when we first started looking round our local primary schools. Arlo got the news of his school place today, so now that the application process is complete, I thought it would be a good time to finally get this post finished.
Choosing a primary school is one of those massively personal decisions. It also varies wildly depending on individual location and circumstances. You might have just two schools in your area, and a clear favourite. Or, you might be like me, with eight potential schools and no particular feelings towards any of them.
I live in London, in an area where there is a lot of change happening in the local schools right now, with nearly all of them turning into academies in the last year or two, and with an influx of free schools cropping up. It’s all change, all the time, which certainly made my decision harder. There’s no doubt that some of the points below will be individual to my specific circumstances, but I’m sure there are also some points that everyone applying for primary school places will be able relate to.
The pressure can get INTENSE. I was surprised at how quickly my initial cool, calm and collected thoughts of, ‘It’s only a school. If we don’t like it we can change schools. We don’t even know how long we will be living in this area so not worth getting too worked up about’ turned into ‘My GOD. This is SUCH a big decision. I don’t want to change schools. I want the children to have the same, stable experience that I had – ONE school from reception to year 6. THIS DECISION IS GOING TO DICTATE THE NEXT 10-12 YEARS OF OUR LIVES.”
YOU are not your child. The spirited, but rather chaotic, school might have been MY idea of the most fun primary school experience, the one most aligned with what I remember from my own primary school days, but I could tell for sure that it wouldn’t necessarily be Arlo’s. He thrives with order, and rules, and can actually get very stressed in a more ‘go with the flow’ environment. He would feel more comfortable in the school with more orderly classrooms and a more regimented routine for the day.
You’re not just choosing a school for your eldest child, but one that will be a good fit for your whole family. (Unless you are prepared to do separate school drop offs, that is). It’s easy to think just of Arlo, but I have to remember Rory too – he will likely be following Arlo into the same school in a couple of years. Where is the best bet for ALL of my children?
There isn’t really a tactical method to applying. From your six choices, the system works out all the schools you qualify for, and then out of those options, informs you of your highest ranking preference. The schools cannot see your preference and therefore know that you REALLY WANT THAT SCHOOL. The best policy is the simplest – just order your choices honestly, according to the schools you liked best.
A LOT can change in a few years. When my neighbour applied for primary schools last year, one of our two local schools was in special measures, and the other one was rated a ‘good’ school. This year, when we applied, the special measures school had since become an academy with a brand new premises, the ‘good’ school is failing SATs and has an unfavourable Ofsted. It’s hard to keep up, changes are happening so quickly round here. Also, coincidence or not, in our area, the trend seems to be to wait until after the primary school application deadline before announcing any huge changes to a school or an academy takeover. I hate the idea of being given a place at a school that barely resembles the one I put on our list of choices a few months previous. A school you like the look of one year, may not be the same school the next year when you come to apply.
Be realistic with your choices. Looking up the furthest distance from the school that a place was offered in previous years, plus intake size VS their planned intake size for this year will give you a good indication as to your chances (Most boroughs have a PDF you can access online with all of this info from the previous three years).
However, don’t be too hasty with ruling out schools due to catchment. A school that is just out of reach might announce a bulge class AFTER the application deadline (As was the case this year with a school in a nearby town). And you can just never predict how many sibling places there will be, or any of the other factors that might determine how likely your child is to get a place. If you really love a school, it’s worth putting it first on your list of choices. It won’t affect your chances of qualifying for your nearer schools (as long as you put those down on your list too!), and it means you can opt in for a wait list place if you don’t get your first choice straight away.
Don’t let Ofsted decide for you. Ofsted ratings can be useful in some respect, wholly unrepresentative in other ways. Go on your insitnct when visiting the schools. I would even suggest avoiding looking at Ofsted until after you’ve seen the schools – the reports are a lot easier to digest with context. I was surprised at my opinions once I had actually as SEEN the schools. Ones that I had assumed I’d like, I was surprised to find I wasn’t that keen on, and some I’d written off suddenly became favourites after seeing them. I honestly think that you will not form an opinion on a school until you have seen it for yourself. Moving house to be near schools without knowing much more than that they have outstanding rating on paper seems a ludicrous idea to me. What if it comes to the open day and you don’t like what you see? Even if you have a one or two year old and school is way off, go to the open days now if you are curious. They are all in November and December, and no one will know you that aren’t there for reception intake for that particular year. Just go and have a look before you think about basing your entire life around the school that you think is best.
Don’t speculate about all the schools / some of the schools in your area being shit before you’ve been to see them. I live in an area of London that is NOT known for its good primary schools. It’s a big part of the reason that we can afford to live here. Since Arlo was a baby, I’ve worried with other local mums about how crap the schools are, watched families with toddlers move away siting the school situation as their number one reason, listened with an attentive but concerned ear every time negative press about one of the local schools pops up. You can imagine what I would be expecting to see once I actually went to tour these schools. So it came as a bit of a surprise to see that they are JUST LIKE ANY OTHER SCHOOLS. Not one school sent me home wailing “over my dead body!!” I could see positives (and negatives) to all of the schools we saw. The end result was me feeling a lot more hopeful than I ever have in my whole time living here thinking about the schools. (Because I am nosy, Sam and I also went to see a couple of highly regarded, heavily oversubcribed schools that we definitely live too far away from, to see how they compared, and neither of us rated them any higher than the schools we’d seen in our local area. There really are positives and negatives to ALL SCHOOLS. Not one school is the be all and end all.)
School application panic IS a thing. And even the most unflappable of us can succumb. At some point, you will likely come across one or more of the following scenarios: 1. Someone going private if they don’t get their first choice state school. 2. Someone moving to an area with ‘better’ schools. 3. Someone who has started to attend church every Sunday due to the good faith schools in the area. 4. Someone ‘swindling’ the post code system in some way – a short term rental or applying with a business address, etc. Annoyingly, it can seem that the people with the most options available to them are the ones talking about schools the most. Whilst the ones who haven’t the option to move or go private, seem, to me, to be quieter – with less options, there is less to deliberate.
With this in mind, when I felt the pressure of school hysteria building, I found it was a good time to have a quick reality check. Sam and I have the option to move out of London – I don’t know whether we’d find better schools necessarily, but I’m sure we’d find more established schools at least, I’m sure there would be schools with playing fields rather than the tiny astroturf and concrete playgrounds offered by most inner London schools these days. And perhaps there would be a few more of the community schools that I have a preference towards. But we both decided we didn’t want to move out of London. Not yet. I love my kids, but their schooling isn’t the be all and end all for us. Not yet, anyway. Sam and I aren’t willing to compromise on leaving London just now. We decided not to let our lives be dictated by which place (geographically) is the BEST place for our children to go to school. When I remind myself that it is OUR chocie to live here, indulging in school panic seems a bit silly. If we aren’t happy with something to do with Arlo’s schooling, we will pick up the slack at home with any extra support he needs. If we find ourselves deeply unhappy with the schools around us, we will look at moving then.
De-prioritise political biases in order to focus on choosing the school that is the best fit for your child/family. This was perhaps the most difficult point for me to follow. I am a firm believer in equal education for all, overseen by an independent education authority. But we are living in a faith school dominant area in a borough that the government are treating as a guinea pig for nationwide Academisation plans, LEA’s are practically redundant relics here. (As of this month, there are actually NO state-run, non-faith secondary schools in Croydon any more). So, there was quite a lot of soul searching during the weeks we spent making our schools decision. How can I be ‘against’ academisation when they count as 90% of the primary schools available to us? Is there any point in choosing the one remaining community school on principle, a school focused on its childrens’ wellbeing more than assessment statistics and exam results, but one that will inevitably become an academy, and I’m betting sooner rather than later. I HATE what has happened to schools in this area over the last five years, but I can’t turn back the clock. I’ve resolved that just because I don’t agree with the Academies Act, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be GOOD academies who DO have their students best interests at the heart of their teaching. And that last point is what I’ve been concentrating on during the process of choosing a school for Arlo.
Go to the open days at the earliest opportunity to allow yourself time to revisit if needs be. If you are anything like me, you will want to see the schools more than once. I had question marks over certain areas and needed to see the schools at different times of day, etc, in order to work out my preferences. Although This probably is only an issue if you find yourself with a bit of choice in your area rather than the nearest school being the only option. I found that most schools were very accommodating with my requests for numerous visits. One school conducted it’s open days at the weekend, but happily showed me around during school hours so I could see the classrooms in action. The community school mentioned above that I fell part in love with… I was so eager to convince myself that Arlo could be at ease there, that I actually visited on four separate occasions. If one visit isn’t enough, go back until you are satisfied that you have formed a fuller perspective of the school.
We have more choice than I thought we would. I originally assumed that applying to schools would be a case of “parental choice is a myth, really you will get your closest school or nothing.” But in practice I’ve found that this isn’t actually the case. Due to it being a transitional period for schools in Croydon, we actually have quite a bit of choice. Many schools have just acadmised in the last two years, and many brand new schools have just opened. All this means a trend of parents deciding to stick with what they know, and so there are a number of ‘new’ schools with very wide catchment areas (I’m talking two or three miles, which, in London, is crazy big). But going on catchments from last year and the knowledge that some schools that are not at full class capacity yet, I knew we had at least SIX schools that Arlo could pretty confidently succeed in getting a place. Of course, this much choice is not necessarily a great thing. Although there is a wider number of schools available to us, the schools themselves were disappointingly unvaried to me. Also, with all this change comes so many unkowns – many of the schools available to us haven’t yet got permanent headteachers or even a finished building to look around, all these unknown factors have made it really hard to predict where might be the best place for Arlo. But, the fact remains that having this many schools to choose from is a different reality to the one I had initially imagined.
We heard about Arlo’s school place this evening. I hadn’t been too anxious about it, because, to tell the truth, we were quietly confident that he would get a place at our top preference. The school we chose is one of our closest, and on top of that, it is currently undersubscribed and it was deemed to be in special measures in it’s last Ofsted report. Even though we figured it would be surprising if he DIDN’T get in, we still didn’t want to assume it was a done deal.
Why did we choose the school we did? Well, there were definitely some extensive pros and cons lists. It was a matter of weighing up the unknowns against factors that we knew we just weren’t prepared to compromise on.
Arlo got our first choice school. It is a newly academised school. As of yet, there is no permanent head, and we have yet to see the school, as they are still building it. This may seem crazy to some, but to us, with all the change happening in the local schools, it was still the most solid choice. The foundation stage is particularly strong. And it’s also a place where we could imagine Arlo being at ease, more so than the other schools.
As I’ve learnt from my preschool experience with Arlo thus far, the only test I’m interested in, is whether he comes home happy and eager to return the next day. And that is something that only time will tell.