Any real choice in primary school applications process?
It's the time of year when mums and dads are filling in school admissions forms which will shape the educational future of their son or daughter for years to come. There's no right or wrong option, but it's stressful trying to figure out if you've made the best decision for your child.
We won't have to submit the primary school application for our daughter until the end of 2011, but it's still something that my husband and I have been discussing quite a lot in the past year. We're in the process of buying a house and have been doing our homework on the types of school in our preferred neighbourhoods.
The house we're buying is well within the catchment area for a very popular primary, and (to be honest) it's one of the main reasons why we chose our new home. But six months ago we had been looking at another property a few miles away, and the catchment factor led us to backtrack.
I don't imagine a generation ago parents would have been thinking along quite the same lines. You might have considered the kind of schools within an area when house-hunting, but you probably just assumed your child would get a place at the primary closest to home and then attend a nearby secondary (although you might perhaps have opted to choose a secondary school slightly further afield). I doubt many people 20 or 30 years ago would have been having the kind of conversations I've been having this year. The following is just one example. I've had several other similar conversations with neighbours, friends and family - even with estate agents!
"I know we're just round the corner from the house you're looking at," said one head teacher. "But we're one-form entry [30 pupils per yearly intake] and the street you mention is the wrong side of the main road, so you wouldn't actually fall into our catchment area."
"But we could still apply?" I enquired. "Your school is definitely the closest one on the map and it would be much easier for us to drop our daughter off there before heading into work."
She hesitated, then added: 'You could apply - we do get the occasional child from out-of-catchment - but I wouldn't like to say what your chances would be."
It's only really when you've started to dig beneath the surface veneer of 'choice' that you realise that, actually, there isn't really a lot of choice when it comes to the school applications process - especially if you take faith schools out of the equation. Well, that's what it feels like to us. The house we originally wanted to buy was pretty close to a highly-regarded Catholic primary. But we aren't religious, so the chances of our daughter getting in would be slim. And, besides, we don't really want to send her to a faith school.
So, where did it leave us? Well, there was a highly-regarded and not surprisingly, very oversubscribed community school a 10-minute walk away, but we were out of catchment. Nothing to stop us applying, but the school we were most likely to be offered a place at was a community school with an Ofsted report (and reputation) that was hardly glowing. Oh, and it was a longer walk door-to-door so not as convenient. Part of me felt guilty for not being happy just to accept what was on offer. But then the other part of me kicked in, the part that said perhaps we should be entitled to a bit more choice - and if I'm we’re not going to get it here, then we'll have to house-hunt elsewhere.
And so that's what we did. We're fortunate that we had the option. But nothing's guaranteed. Our daughter doesn't have a sibling so doesn't fit one of the main admissions criteria. However, the school that we are well within catchment for is two-form entry, so our daughter has a very good chance of gaining a place. But we'll still have to fill in those forms at the end of next year and await the outcome. I read on the BBC News website the other day that 20% of primaries (and almost 30% of secondaries) are full to bursting point so places are in short supply.
It's a stressful business which can seem like a total lottery to some. It's a system ripe for change. Judging by the blog entry of a fellow Parent panel member, the system north of the border in Scotland seems to be a bit more straightforward. I wish it were the case south of the border too.
Joanna Youngs is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.