Forget job interviews, driving tests, sitting exams, hospital rushes with an ill or injured child. For pure hand-shaking, dry-mouthed, adrenalin powered stress, mounting a school appeal wins hands down, no question.
We live in Hackney, an inner London borough with more children than school places, despite five new academies being built in as many years. In the year I mounted an appeal for my daughter, 331 children, 14.4VIRTUAL-SchoolfinderWidget-left% All parents of pupils making the transfer to secondary school receive a parents' guide tome from the Learning Trust, the organisation with responsibility for Hackney's schools.
On the first page the Chief Executive explains ominously 'for some pupils living in certain parts of Hackney, it has become very difficult to secure a secondary non-denominational mixed school place in the borough.' Then it's on to the mind-spinning lists of each school's admission criteria with helpful maps showing a mass of green dots (successful students) and red dots (unsuccessful students). So what schools could we realistically apply for?
The short answer was we appeared to live in a geographical grey area, with our chances of getting into any local school extremely slim. We're talking metres here, with some school admission zones as little as 400 metres from the school gates.
But at the local schools fair back in September, the representative from our potential first choice and most local school told me 'it's always worth appealing', that message repeated again at the school's open day: 'Apply and see what happens.' So, months later, there I was – appealing.
In the school corridor, I waited with three other parents. As the clock ticked and tension climbed, we swapped stories. I was the only one whose child had a school place, however much she and I were dreading her going there. Was I being selfish wanting more for her? If I succeeded, would I be depriving another child?
One woman began to sob as she explained how other well-meaning mothers had assured her daughter: 'Don't worry, darling, your mum won't let you go to a bad school.'
'I can't see I have any choice, good or bad,' she said, despairingly.
Another woman was mounting six appeals, so determined was she to resist pressure to accept a place at a school in a neighbouring borough with a woeful reputation.
Finally, I was ushered into the appeal room and into a chair opposite the panel of three local lay people. The clerk of appeals introduced each member of the panel and the deputy head teacher, who then proceeded to explain why my daughter had not won a place. In short, the school was over-subscribed – they had received 1412 applicants for 188 places.
I was then invited to put my case: that the problems faced by my daughter outweighed the problems faced by the school if she was allowed in. I had come prepared.
I outlined the contrast between a 10 minute walk to the school through familiar streets and the bus ride, train journey and second bus journey, breaking Government's recommended travel guidelines, to the girls' school two boroughs away in which she had received a place.
I explained she had been bullied in primary school by a band of girls, who would now be going to this school, and my anxieties that the problem could escalate in a less controlled secondary school environment. I described her abject misery on being told what school she had been allocated.
Eager to back up my arguments with proof, I handed out photocopies of transport timetables, a letter from a fellow mother and a piece my daughter had written about what it feels like to be bullied – 'small and delicate inside' is the phrase that haunts me.
Finally, I explained why this school had always been our first choice – mixed, local, streamed teaching with an emphasis on music, and where our younger sons could follow their sister.
The panel asked a few questions. They appeared admirably interested and concerned, especially as they were nearing the end of a day in which they had heard an exhausting 22 appeals. Finally, the chair of the panel asked if there was anything else I wanted to say. Weeks of carefully thought preparation and arguments disappeared. 'Please, please give her a place,' I begged weakly. I was in and out in 20 minutes.
Outside I wept; weeks of pent-up tension bubbling over, of the constant pressure to do the best for my child and worrying that I hadn't. Like every parent, I wanted my child to flourish and be happy, to have good friends, to get to school safely and without stress and, hopefully, to get the grades to go on to the next stage of her life.
Every morning children passed our house on the way to this school looking eager and happy. It didn't seem that much to want the same for my child, but in reality perhaps it was.
For two weeks I tried to dampen down hope, but it kept bubbling up. A near-constant imaginary scenario played inside my head of telling her she had a place in the school and her euphoric reaction. I woke up at night going over and over what I had said in the appeal, what I should have said, what I must have sounded like when I faltered, what a panel member's expression could have meant. Thankfully, my daughter knew nothing of the appeal and of her mother's seething emotions.
At the end of May we received the letter from the clerk to the admissions appeal panel. We had failed. Only 6 out of 133 appeals were upheld, and those because of administrative errors in the admission process or where family circumstances were particularly compelling.
I felt utterly deflated, a fool for even imagining we had a chance, for putting so much research and effort into the appeal process. I realised minutes after walking out of the door, there must have been a rejection cross put against my daughter's name before the next desperate parent filed in with her own carefully prepared arguments.
This is the reality of school appeals: nerve-wracking, time-consuming and, except for the very lucky and very few, ultimately pointless.'
But miracles do happen: weeks before the start of the September term, we received the phone call of my dreams. We had remained on the waiting list and there was now a place for our daughter at the school. You can imagine our elation!
Two years on my daughter loves school and is flourishing: school councillor, in a band, playing in the school netball team, surrounded by a group of supportive and happy local friends who all congregate in our hallway every morning.
Yesterday we received the news of our twin sons' school applications - they had received a place in our daughter's school, as siblings.
What a contrast between our calm sense of relief this week and the stress of two years ago!
My heart goes out to everyone who will decide to fight for a school place for their child. It's a stressful, exhausting journey - but it can be worth it.
For more information:
ACE Centre for Education (www.ace-ed.org.uk, 0808 800 5793)
The Children's Legal Centre (www.childrenslegalcentre.com, 0845 345 4345).
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