There have never been so many options for parents choosing schools for their children, from free schools to academies to faith schools. But with this extended choice comes tough decision-making for parents about what’s best for their kids - and potential criticism from fellow parents, friends and family.
While family members and close friends might see voicing their anxieties as caring and straight-talking, far more insidious is the playground politics of fellow parents choosing to see your school decision as a slur on their own choices. In reality, of course, parents choose the school they hope will most suit their children’s temperament and talents, where they will be happy, and which most suits their own family ethos - and then cross their fingers and toes they’ll get in.
Here, five parents talk about why they chose different schools and respond to criticisms.
The Fee-Paying School
“I’m doing the best I can for my sons with the means I have”
Adam Diamond, 49, a recruiter from Hampstead, North London, sends his sons Oscar, 11, and Anton, nine, to University College School in London. He’s married to Clare, 40, who teaches French at a prep school. The fees at UCS are £18,000 a year for each child.
“It comes down to giving your children the best chance in life and I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do that. It’s an imperfect, unfair system but I’m trying to get the best I can with the means I have. Compared to my impression of the state system, UCS’s results are better, they’re in a class with 23 other bright, motivated children whose parents have high expectations and there’s a range of extra-curricular sports and societies for them.
“I went to UCS and I think, as a parent, you do what you know - and we could afford it. The boys both went to The Phoenix School, the feeder school, from the age of five.
“The frustration for me is that the boys are privileged but they don’t see it. I want them to appreciate what they have. I try not to lecture them about the cost and put a more positive spin on it - I say you’ve got a great opportunity here, try your best and make the most of it.”
“Other parents said the school was too strict”
Martha Silcott, 45, CEO and inventor of FabLittleBag, chose Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London for her sons Marley, 16, and Noah, 13.
“I never understood parents who didn’t investigate local secondary schools before making their choice. My focus was on finding a school that was most suited to Marley’s personality and where he would be most comfortable. I knew he’d benefit from a very structured school environment and respond well to boundaries and high expectations. At the open evening the headteacher Sir Michael Wilshaw, who then went on to become head of Ofsted, was extremely impressive and I was determined to try and get my son into the school.
“I didn’t choose an academy per se, but this specific school. For me, an academy simply meant the school would manage its own financial expenditure, as opposed to the local authority, and that made sense. It was also important to find a local school, so they could have local friends and not be reliant on me driving them round.
“There is some negativity around Mossbourne locally. Lots of people said they would never send their kids to such a strict school, that it was like a military academy, but they misunderstand the nature of that strictness. It’s not about squashing children’s personalities but about allowing them to flourish and be their best. When you’re a teenager there’s so much you’re trying to figure out, I think it’s good to know that certain things are non-negotiable - like being on time, wearing your uniform correctly, handing in homework on time. The world has structure and boundaries, so why shouldn’t school?
“I’m surrounded by parents who are totally overwhelmed by their children’s homework, especially those whose children go to private schools, and having to be totally involved. I feel so relieved (and a little bit guilty) that I don’t have to do that, because I know the school is on it.”
The Free School
“Stick to your vision and you’ll convince people”
Claerwyn Hamilton-Wilkes, a former civil servant, co-founded a free school with her friend Claire McDonnell, The Hoe Valley School in Woking, Surrey. She is mum to Sara, 11, who will start at the school in September, Alex, nine, and Catherine, seven, and is now vice chair of the governors.
“Starting a new school has been so incredibly rewarding. My advice would be if there is a genuine local need, get stuck in and make it happen. Spend time thinking about how you want your school to be - for us it was a school that has high aspirations and gives academic opportunities to every child - and stick to that vision.
“In the early days, people were rather perplexed by our plans but we were determined. I remember one teacher teasing me by saying, ‘You are a bit of a freak - you wanted a school, you couldn’t find it, so you made it.’
“Naturally, people will see you making a different choice from theirs as a critique, especially if you’re starting a school from scratch, but the school is now unifying the local community. Previously, children from South Woking making the transition to secondary school would have to travel huge distances to 12 different schools. The idea of choice was a nonsense. Now, half the children in my daughter’s school year have chosen Hoe Valley.
“We were helped every step of the way through the application and funding process by the New Schools Network. In June 2014 the Department of Education approved our application for a co-educational secondary school - but we had no school buildings and three months later had to compete to attract parents and prospective pupils in the normal Surrey County Council school admissions process.
“While other schools were showing off their gyms and science labs, we had tape on the ground of the empty local leisure centre car park provided by Woking Borough Council and were pointing out where the classroom and admin block would be.
“Nevertheless, our passion and enthusiasm won parents over and we started in September 2015 with 95 pupils in temporary portacabins. We now have 225 Year 7 and Year 8 pupils and land has been purchased for the new school building, for 840 pupils, which will open in September 2018.”
The Faith School
“The only downside is the girls don’t mix with local kids”
Catherine Ball, 37, a journalist, sends her daughters, Sophie, seven, and Jessica, five, to St John Fisher primary school in Sheffield.
“We’re a Catholic family and wanted our children to learn about their faith. But I also didn’t want them to grow up in their own little bubble and, perhaps surprisingly, this school is far more culturally diverse with an awareness of other religions than our local school. A lot of Muslims send their children because they would rather have a faith school, than not.
“My husband Jon went to Catholic schools and I went to local state schools. I needed a bit of convincing at first - I was brought up Anglican but started going to Mass when we got engaged and converted recently. It might have been different if there’d been an amazing school nearby but I’m happy to make the 1½ mile drive to their lovely school.
“The school is a one form entry, not three forms mixed around every year, so a gentle start to school and a chance to be with the same classmates throughout their time there. Another plus point is being in a primary school that’s a ‘feeder school’ to the ‘outstanding’ Catholic secondary school.
“The only downside to our school choice is the girls don’t mix with children in our village and some of the kids view them as a curiosity because of their uniform - a very smart shirt and tie, not a polo shirt and sweatshirt. Most people wouldn’t consider not going to the local school, but we’ve definitely made the right decision.”
The Home School
“I want people to know home ed is a real option”
“I do not miss the morning school run at all. It was such a source of stress; a fraught start to the day. Harry went to primary school for three years, but the curriculum was madness - every time he’d become interested in a new topic, they’d be racing on to the next thing.
“I was worried we’d be perceived as the weirdo family but I thought we’d give home ed a try - and we’ve never looked back. The boys are confident, chatty, interested and engaged. They have a thirst for learning, which hasn’t been switched off by schools’ focus on tests and results, and can learn what they like at their own pace.
“People are always intrigued that the boys don’t go to school. The first question they ask is about socialising. How many times at school were you told ‘you’re not here for socialising’? Plus it’s a very limited environment, contained by interests, ages, girls and boys.
“The second question everybody asks is ‘What about exams?’ I don’t care about exams. They will do the exams that they need for whatever they want to do, rather than exams for the sake of it. Harry is very keen on computers, while Joe’s into something different every day - a Lego designer, superstar DJ and actor are the latest ideas.
“My in-laws were appalled when I said we were taking Harry out of school. Frustratingly, my father-in-law still tries to ‘teach’ the boys and test them, rather than just having fun, while my two elderly aunts think it’s just ridiculous.
“I just want people to know that home ed is a real option with lots of families offering support and reassurance - and not just for people who knit their own jumpers from cat hair.”