Like all other parents with a 10-year-old we have just grappled with the greatest moral, economic, and political decision our family has ever had to make. What secondary school to send the precious one to.
My parents didn’t have to deal with this dilemma. No one in the area paid for private school and just one concerned parent sent their daughter an hour’s bus ride away. So, like the majority, I went to my local comp. A school where aspirations we so low that only two people in an entire year cohort admitted an ambition to go to university.
You only truly understand a system when you are in it.
For those yet to face this challenge and expect league tables to be a good form guide, well, it’s a bit like trusting past numbers at the dog track. So do you take a bet on an improving school with a new head, new staff and new facilities? Or risk that a school with the best recent results that has just taken over the management of two others in its academy chain might have peaked? Or what about the school that you feel most comfortable in and like the look of, but it hasn’t the greatest track record?
The process also lays bare the education system. The great results of the localish state school would have put it top of our list, but at parents evening the head focused repeatedly and exclusively on its Russel Group admission rates. A pupil who was focused on getting into a Russell Group university and becoming a corporate lawyer was impressive. But despite supposedly serving a whole community, I bet this school doesn’t let employers in to talk about apprentice routes – degree level or not. Do we want our daughter to spend her teenage years in what appears to be a high-pressure exam factory?
Choosing the right school does not mean that you will get in. We can certainly choose the six schools we put on our application, but we don’t control the decision. If you think that your home postcode is the determining factor, think again. One oversubscribed school in our area has not admitted pupils on postcode in the last five years. You need your kid(s) in the right feeder school.
In our area we had to factor in priority feeder schools, postcode, travelling distance and music aptitude - why do three schools in our local area reserve places for 10% of pupils who pass a music test? And not all schools in an area play to the same rules.
I work in the student recruitment industry so also have the handicap of knowing too much - we know how schools with the right peers, aspiration levels and teaching quality can influence the precious one’s future. But, rightly, there’s no opportunity to influence decisions here. Forms are completed on-line and a clearing company’s algorithms make the decision.
And what about the precious one herself? Don’t her views count? The finer points of league tables and university success rates are not that easy to discuss when she’s more interested in where her friends are going and if she can cycle there. And what happens if we ‘persuade’ her into a school she then hates? Entering teenage years on the back foot is not appealing. 10 year-olds also tend to change their minds, a lot.
We eventually agreed that the school that mixes academic performance and pastoral care goes top of the list. She can’t cycle there (it’s a short bus ride), but a friend is going. The academic hothouse is on the list, but lower down. But we have to list six and the middle four are all each-way bets. The online form has been submitted and we find out in March. Only four months to wait. My parents didn’t have to go through this.