Like thousands and thousands of other parents up and down the country, my partner and I have suddenly found ourselves facing what feels like a momentous decision: where do we want our daughter to go to school next September? And more importantly, how on earth do we get her in?
She's only just turned four, but I'm calling up schools local to our area, trying to find out about open days, looking up stats and Ofsted reports, and getting myself in a right old tizz about whether she will, or won't, get into a school we feel happy with. Long gone are the days you just went to the primary school closest to you – in towns and cities at least. Now it's like a scrum to get your place on the open day and your application in; and you have to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of putting the most popular local school as your first choice. If all your preferred schools are massively popular and oversubscribed, you might not get into any of them – and end up being offered a place in some hovel, three miles away.
When we bought our house here in East London, two-and-a-half years ago, it was not without considering the primary schools in the area. We're fortunate – our closest schools are grades 1 and 2. Or at least, we thought we were fortunate.
Because, oh my, the good schools, and the nice ones – the ones on quiet, leafy streets rather than on B roads – are so over-subscribed. Even with many, many schools around here expanding to meet demand, it feels there are not enough reception places to go around.
Our closest school, for example (which would also be absolutely our first choice), is 0.2 miles away from us. Last year, the school had 60 places up for grabs. Of those, 30 went straight to siblings, two went to special needs students and the remaining 28 were allocated on distance. The final place went to a child who lived 0.168 miles from the school gate.
Of course, ever year is different. The year before last, the final place went to a child who lived 0.196 miles from the gate.
So that's still us out then.
The next nearest school to us (it's graded as 'good' but is rather huge, taking 120 children at reception) is 0.3 miles away and it also had places to offer last year based on distance – the last place offered went to a child who lived 0.22 miles away.
I had a quick look online and found all sorts of forum discussions, among parents scrabbling around trying to find the tool by which their Local Education Authority (LEA) measures distance. It's 'as the crow flies', in case you didn't know, measured in a straight line from your address to the school gate.
"But WHICH gate post?! Left or right?!" one mother was desperately inquiring. And that metre or so could, indeed, make a difference.
There is a danger I think, that we all end up feeling rather desperate. The LEAs allocate places in the fairest way they deem possible – but as parents we feel we have very little control over the minutiae of how places come to be offered. Every year, we read about children who were not awarded a place, not only at their number one choice, but at any of their six preferred schools.
So, wanting the very best for their children, some parents do whatever they can. Those who can afford it just move house, simple! According to a recent survey, parents living closest to the best state schools pay an average of £34,000 more for their home (I wonder how many of those parents realise that amount of money could have paid for the first three or four years of private primary education?).
Some people also, you know, find God.
I know several couples who started attending church regularly (for the first time in their lives), a year-and-a-half before school application time.
So there are some options for us. But really, aside from spending a fortune (perhaps to rent a flat 100m from our preferred school for six months) and lying (I'd have to pretend my partner and I were separated and move all my bank accounts and child benefit to the temporary address), or pretending to be religious when I am not (which I will not consider), all I can do is go with the flow.
I think what we all need to do is chill out a bit. Because there is some good – and very important – news. This is something every one of us should consider as we go through this application process, and as we sit biting our nails until April when we all receive our offer.
You see, it's not all about Ofsted reports. They are a guide, yes – and are bound to be considered alongside whatever we glean from attending schools' open days in the coming weeks. And it's not about whether a school teaches in line with any given faith, either (let's be honest, the results are going to be a bit skewed when the majority of pupils are from middle class families).
The absolute, most important determining factor when it comes to how well a child does in school is parental involvement.
A recent study showed that students attending weaker schools, whose parents were interested and involved with their schooling, did better than students at better schools, who had apathetic parents.
It referred mostly to children at secondary school, but it stands to reason the same would apply to children of all ages.
We are not necessarily powerless. We are not completely at the mercy of our allocated school and the local education authority. A large part of it is about us, how we support our children, how we teach them at home and how interested we are.
With the recent stories in the news, about how children are turning up to school in the morning not having had breakfast – and in fact a story earlier in the year which reported that large numbers of children were starting primary school not potty trained, and unable to put on their own coat – it seems there are people who don't manage to meet the very basic needs of their children.
I've no doubt socio-economic factors play a part. Four million children in the UK reportedly live in poverty, and schools are bound to witness the effects of that, whether they are direct or indirect.
But on every level, what we do as parents affects our children's future.
And I for one feel better knowing that, even if Ava is sent to a school which overall performs less well than the ones closest to us, that I can personally make a difference.
More on Parentdish: What to look for when choosing a school
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