Selecting Secondary Schools: The Illusion of Choice

Having a child in year 6 means you have about six weeks to go round visiting secondary schools and finding six that your child doesn’t object going to and preferably wants to go to and then putting them in order and submitting the form by October 22nd (or 31st if you’re submitting it online). This is the third time we’ve been on this merry go round and it doesn’t get any easier, with school visits taking up a good 3 hours and both evening and daytime visits recommended.

The short summary of the situation in London is that if you can get in, you don’t want to go there, and if you want the school, you can’t get in. Hence the illusion of choice. I have a friend in another town who sums up her school situation as “well there are 2 secondary schools: one’s very good; the other is s**t; we all apply for the former and hope we don’t get the latter”.

Two years ago we complained to the council about the lack of schools where we live. The result eventually moved from “there’s no problem as there are enough school places in the borough” to “well maybe there’s a bit of a shortage in your area”. Last year we submitted a petition to the council saying please do something, to which their answer was “well we’ll think about possibly doing something but it’s not easy you know”. Technically speaking there may be enough places in the borough but most spare places are at the other end of the borough or in schools that every one tries very hard not to get into.

The first school I visited 8 years ago with my first son and it was his first visit to a secondary school and he thought it was quite amazing. Until we got to the head teacher’s speech. After a few minutes he turned to me and whispered ‘she’s nuts isn’t she?’ Considering I was wondering how to persuade him that this wasn’t the school for him after the head opened her mouth that was a good result. Four years ago I visited with my second who took one look at the amazing art and said he wasn’t going here. Not one for art, he isn’t. However they had an emergency headteacher for 3 years to turn the school around and he did, along with seeking funding for a new building. I trotted along with my third son last month and they had a new head who seemed good and the new building was very spanking new and seemed well designed. I asked one art teacher how she found the new building and her reply was succinctly “well the roof doesn’t leak”. We liked this school very much. However we don’t stand much of a chance getting in (Distance from school: 3.3 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.2 miles).

School number 2 is where the older brothers go so the advantage is that unless there are over 200 siblings and children in care, which might happen, we’re virtually guaranteed a place. So what’s wrong with it? Well there’s no sixth form, as there isn’t in that borough, and I would not touch their local sixth form college. Also it’s over 5 miles away which makes for a full hour’s journey in the morning and a half six alarm call. Pick up the school, move it and add a sixth form and I’d be ecstatic. However the current head has certainly turned the school around. When I visited with number one son we both absolutely loved the then headteacher. He started in September and she left for medical reasons in December. The new head wasn’t good enough, the school dipped and the current one took over. The dip was the reason I got son number two in as the gap in age was too large for sibling criteria. Now of course there would be no point in applying at this distance without a sibling in place.

The third school we visited is in the third borough we’re considering. We applied for it last time and didn’t get it. Very little chance of getting it this time either, but it’s a nice school. It has enormous classes and a good feel to it, with improving results and the added benefit that in two years time it will have a brand new school built on the other side of the site. Not a new building but a whole new school. What a thought. Naturally there was some anxiety about whether funding would go ahead but it’s happening. Bit of a trek but a hugely positive atmosphere.(Distance from school: 3.9 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.2 miles).

We went to see the next school as so many parents got it last year who didn’t put it on their form at all. Not a bad school; its results were dismal but are improving rapidly (partly because it’s got such a long way to go) but it’s by a town centre and has a terrible reputation for behaviour outside the school and on the buses. Not necessarily all the school’s fault but it can be hard to see past the reputation. The school is slowly falling to pieces as it is on hold, having applied for trust status and not knowing what’s happening with that, and having a new school promised them that is no doubt not going to be forthcoming. Rumours were flying about moving the school down our end but funnily enough a readily available site was not ready or available so that’s gone down the pan. The school was certainly not as bad as its reputation but that’s not a great endorsement (Distance from school: 3 miles; last distance offered for Sep unlimited).

As to the fifth, well we didn’t visit it last time round. Again, the reputation wasn’t very good and it had a new head who was rapidly improving the school but there were a lot of changes going on and the results weren’t good. Another new head this term who made a terrible and overlong speech, talking only of the value of education in terms of getting a job. No reference to life long learning, personal fulfilment, joy of learning or anything like that. Nothing particularly wrong with the school but nothing right either, no ‘wow’ factor and not enough on the walls (Distance from school: 2.5 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.0 miles).

The sixth and last school was a surprise. We went two years ago and weren’t impressed. The buildings were nice. The layout was nice. There was nothing inspiring or exciting. The headteacher gave an adequate speech but not particularly encouraging. This time round, possibly due to the addition of a sixth form, there was a buzz around the school and some wonderfully enthusiastic teachers that made it very attractive indeed (Distance from school: 1.5 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 1.4 miles).

So having visited all these schools we’ve plumped for the one that we know we can get into. We debated trying for the last one as it is so close but the chances of getting in are so dismal and the uncertainty of waiting lists so distressing that it’s not really worth the effort.

The point here is that despite all that effort and research, all that talking to teachers, evaluating schools and looking at league tables, there is no choice. Once you’ve said no to single sex schools, no to schools over an hour’s travel away and no to the ones that really are dreadful, there’s not a lot left. Council admissions will tell you to not rely on distance offered last year as the number of applications can fluctuate wildly but the best schools offer places in ever decreasing circles.

And don’t even get me started on faith schools.

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