School Admissions (or My Nervous Breakdown)

I have heard that traumatic experiences can be exorcised by writing about them, so following the process of applying for a primary school place for my daughter I have decided to give it a go and share my pain with you.

Many years ago, when I was a childless young whippersnapper, and even when I had a small baby, I thought that people who made a fuss about the difficulty of getting their child into the ‘right’ primary school were idiots with no life. For heaven’s sake, I thought, they’re five years old, just send them to your local school and have done with it. We bought our first house 15 months before we had Anna, knowing that we intended to have a baby in the near future. It didn’t occur to either of us even to check where the nearest school was, let alone check out its Ofsted report.

However, we got lucky. It turned out that there was a primary school on the very next street, rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. A Toy Library runs there every week, and I started taking Anna when she was about 1, and then when the time came for her to go to nursery we applied for, and got, a place. I’m still slightly sceptical about how much attention should be paid to the snapshot view of an Ofsted report, but this is a lovely school. Warm and friendly, engaged and engaging staff, nothing but good reports from friends with older children in the school. Goodness, we felt smug. My attitude of just sending your child to the nearest school was being totally vindicated.

Then round about this time last year we decided to move house. Our little 2 bedroomed terrace was starting to feel rather too small for Anna’s ever-expanding collection of toys, and I was fed-up with the non-existent storage meaning that I had to hide the hoover behind the sofa and lift it over and out every time it was needed. We love the area though, and didn’t want to move far, so when we found a charming and vaguely affordable three-bedroomed house for sale on the adjoining road to ours we were thrilled. Things went as smoothly as they can when you’re in a house-buying chain, and a few months later we moved in. At some point during the process, more in a spirit of idle curiosity than anything else, we checked that we would still be in the catchment area for our preferred school. It seemed self-evident that we would be as it was still the nearest by far, and, sure enough, the data for the last three years showed that our new house would always have fallen within the catchment.

Our laissez-faire attitude continued until October last year when Anna came out of nursery clutching the Waltham Forest School Admissions Booklet. Instantly the atmosphere at the school gates was tense, verging on paranoid. Parents whose nursery child had an older sibling already in the school were hated and revered in equal measure – they didn’t have to share our pain, but they were gurus who had Got Their Child In. I tried to rise above all this, confident in my statistics, and my conviction that common sense would prevail, but it was difficult. Little tendrils of panic started to creep in around the edges. Then, one day, a friend, who lives a similar distance to us from the school, appeared at picking up time ashen-faced and shaking. I asked what the problem was, expecting the answer to be bankruptcy or a death in the family at the very least. But no. “I’ve been to the first of the Open Days for prospective parents.” she replied. “One of the teachers said that they expect the catchment area to HALVE this year, there’s no way we’ll get in.”

I felt the colour drain from my own face. I rushed home, opened Google Maps, and began feverishly measuring distances. It was no good. However optimistic my measurements, if the catchment area halved then there was no way Anna would get in.

I should probably explain, for readers who haven’t been afflicted by this process, the way it works. Over-subscribed schools (which, in London, means any ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ rated school) prioritise places according the following criteria:

1) Any children who are in care.

2) Any children with Statements of Special Educational Needs.

3) Any children with siblings in the school.

The remaining places are allocated according to distance away from the school. The difficulty with this system is that there is no such thing as a fixed catchment area, and no way of saying in any given year whether or not you live near enough to get in. Theoretically all the places could be taken by children from the first three groups, leaving a child living literally next door to the school without a place.

Suddenly my common sense conviction that Anna would go to the nearest school, and weren’t we lucky that it was such a good one fell spectacularly apart. I started researching other schools in the area, and it was far from encouraging. The two next-nearest schools are both religious, one Catholic and one C of E. We are not churchgoers, and Anna has not been baptised, so I knew that our chances with them were slim to non-existent. I did consider a Damascene family conversion, but then learnt that admissions were based on church attendances over the last two years, so quickly abandoned that plan. The two next-nearest schools were nice enough, but not only were they each a good twenty-minute walk away, which I felt would be quite a big ask for a 4.5 year-old in her first term at school, but they were also over-subscribed, and so we would have zero chance of actually getting into them anyway. So, what would happen?

Basically the current system means that you end up with sink schools – schools which are not over-subscribed, very frequently because they have not got a good Ofsted report, and so have spare place. Children who have not been allocated a place at one of their chosen schools are sent to one of these, which can be anywhere in their host borough. My research showed that the nearest school which looked likely to have spaces was not only a 30-40 minute walk away, but had only recently come out of the sinisterly termed ‘Special Measures’.

To say that we regretted moving house at this point would be something of an understatement. Not that we would have been guaranteed a place in the old house, but we would have been considerably nearer. I was also regretting my lack of religious conviction, and more than ready to abandon my principled objections to private education and somehow raise the money to send Anna to a local Montessori, only to find that I should have had her name down for at least three years for that.

The last few months have been somewhat challenging. Every week or two a new rumour would spring up – actually the catchment won’t change much, yes it will, this school is better than it seems, you don’t actually need to be a Christian to get a place at the C of E school etc etc etc. Getting straight answers to questions from the privately contracted Admissions Service was not easy, and there were quirkily Byzantine elements to the system, which under other circumstances I might have found rather amusing. For example, the C of E school is moving buildings in September 2013, and another school taking over their old site, yet the distance criteria used was for their old site. Another school has two sites, and chose the site housing its Year 5 and 6 pupils as the place to be measured from, despite the fact that no reception children would ever be taught there. And so on.

Last Wednesday was D-Day at last. We’d applied on-line, seduced by the promise of finding out by email a day before the postal notification arrived. The first thing I did on waking up was check my emails, but nothing was there. I spent a lot of the morning clicking ‘refresh’ on my browser, but then noticed that, on a local parents forum I’m part of, the cognoscenti (people who applied last year) were saying that you didn’t find out until 6pm. I tried to put it out of my mind until then, and at 6.01pm was back at my laptop. Nothing. Nor at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 etc. By 7pm I decided that I would log on to the School Admissions system and see if there was any information there. Their homepage warned people not to try logging on until you had had your email, which would arrived ‘during the evening’. I tried logging on anyway, but the system was not allowing it. Over the next few hours my husband and I sat glued to laptop and i-pad, alternating between my email account and trying to log on to the admissions system. Still nothing. By 10pm we were exhausted, and I at least was convinced I’d somehow messed up the form and failed to apply at all. My mood wasn’t helped by cheery texts either from friends who HAD got their choice of school, or from friends or family wondering why we hadn’t been in touch to tell them yet. My husband finally wrested the laptop from me and declared that we should go to bed and phone the technical support line (not, of course, open at the time thousands of parents are trying to use the system) first thing in the morning, as we clearly weren’t going to hear anything that night. I absolutely agreed with him, in theory, but still found myself sneaking back to the laptop while he was in the bathroom.

Miraculously I could suddenly log on, and see that the information was there. At this point the nervous breakdown which had been pending for months finally erupted, and I couldn’t make myself click on it. I yelled for my husband, and he, demonstrating the iron will and manly courage for which I married him, clicked on the file and informed me that…<Trumpet Fanfare> Anna had got her first choice, the school we had wanted her to go to all along. I do realise that there is no way of that not sounding bathetic to the reader, but you will just have to trust me and say that it put the intense relief I felt when I opened my A-level results into a very poor second place.

So there we are. The postal offer arrived the next day, and is pinned in pride of place on our kitchen notice board. I may well get it framed. My sister-in-law, who was staying with us, was very amused to come into the kitchen to find my husband and I standing side by side gazing lovingly at this piece of paper, in much the same way, she informed us, as we used to gaze at a sleeping baby Anna.


Lessons Learned

Guest blog – Esther from Make My Day Creative

When I heard that Helen had a book being published I was so excited!  She’s a natural at writing and I’m sure you’ll all agree that her book is lots of fun once you’ve had chance to read it.

I, however, am not a natural at writing.  My background is in engineering, not English, and I mostly spent my time at work writing in equations composed of Greek symbols.  But after finishing at my engineering job I decided to start writing a blog to motivate myself to be more creative.  What do you know, it worked!

So when Helen asked me to help her set up a website and blog it felt good that I could share some skills with her.  After all, that’s what sister-in-laws are for right?

I’m thought of as the technical one on that side of my family.  Everyone else has degrees in English and History.  So that makes it my job to handle my niece’s increasing volume of science related questions.

We recently had a chance to visit and just about managed to put down our luggage before Anna bounced up and exclaimed “Aunty Esther, I’m going to take you to the science museum!  We need to get off at South Kensington!”

It took me a moment to get over the fact that my 4yr old niece knows how to get around London better than me, but then I think I was as excited as she was.  I LOVE the science museum!

So the next day we set off.  It was half term, so busy, but that did not dampen my spirits.  We did indeed get off at South Kensington and managed to steer Anna past the buskers en-route without too many questions.  Then we hit the back of the queue to get in…

Queue successfully navigated, we regrouped inside and headed for the children’s area. To get to this you have to go through the space section.  This was easily the busiest section of the museum.

The thing about children is, they can fit much more easily between the “spaces” in the crowd.  They are also unafraid of pushing to the front, to see what is in the display areas.

So, to cut a long story short, I’m very grateful to whoever arranged the display case involving a model deckchair on a model moon, because it caught Anna’s imagination and made her stop for long enough for us to catch up with her. (“Look Aunty Esther, how silly, a chair on the moon!”) I think the point about it being very hot on the moon may have been a bit beyond her grasp at this stage, but I did manage to explain propellers to her in the transport section.

So, science lesson over, we finally made it to the children’s section, which really is very good (and would have been much better if there were less crowds), and where we only lost her twice before lunchtime.

Somewhat recovered after a sit down in the cafe and having demolished our pasta pots, we managed another section or two of the museum before heading to the gift shop.  Here’s where I learned my science lesson of the day: overly stimulating shop + tired 4yr old = bad plan.  Cue more queues to purchase crazy straws and bouncy balls with lights in, a minor tantrum narrowly avoided, and a swift exit ensued.

Needless to say Anna fell asleep on the tube home; fortunately I remembered how to get back to Walthamstow myself.

Brighton Rocks

images-2Yesterday was an unexpectedly lovely day. Lovely, because I went on a day trip to Brighton with my husband and daughter, and spending time in one of your favourite places with two of your favourite people can’t be bad. Unexpected because I should have been in Copenhagen, and clearly wasn’t. We had a holiday to Copenhagen planned for this week, which unfortunately has had to be cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control, as they say. My husband has therefore cancelled most of his week’s annual leave as well; hopefully we will be able to go away later in the year instead, but he kept yesterday as a day off for us to have a consolatory day trip.

And it really did do an excellent job of cheering us up. By an act of supreme willpower and organisation (and packing up some muffins so we could have breakfast on the train), we managed to catch the 9.36am departure from London Victoria, and so by 10.45 we were sitting in a lovely little cafe in The Lanes, Tick Tock, tucking into delicious coffee, hot chocolate and milkshake. By 11.30 we were on the beach; I took a restful back seat while Anna and Thomas raced up and down, dug for buried treasure, collected shells and threw pebbles into the waves. Hard to say which of them had the most fun, really. I gazed at the waves, watching them one at a time rising up on the horizon and coming nearer and nearer before crashing on the shore. One of the most relaxing yet awe-inspiring things I know of.

We had lunch in a little Thai place – unsurprisingly Anna didn’t take to Thai food particularly well,  and so her stunningly well balanced lunch was…rice. And a few bites of dumpling. But mainly rice. Don’t forget she’d already had a chocolate milkshake though…

After lunch we took the oldest electric railway in the country, the miniature Volks Railway, along the seafront to the Peter Pan adventure playground, and then back again to the pier for Anna to enjoy throwing herself around on the bouncy castle slide which is part of the fairground at the end.

Pre-Anna our fairly frequent trips to Brighton would conclude with drinking too much wine and too many cocktails with friends, heading out for dinner, and then scrambling to get the last train back to London. Now, with a small girl who may turn into a pumpkin if she’s not in bed by 7.30pm, we instead scrambled to catch the 17.19 train, and no alcoholic beverages were consumed at all. On the other hand, I’d never been to the adventure playground before, so it’s all about different kinds of fun.

Despite my love of London, every time I visit Brighton I find myself checking Rightmove for property prices, working out exactly how long my husband’s commute would take (too long, being the inevitable answer) and generally planning our relocation. The city just seems to have the perfect combination of metropolitan verve and diversity, amazing shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, charming old streets, and, of course the sea. It’s not in any way a realistic dream for the moment, but if there are any readers out there who happen to work in film production and are looking for the next big Rom Com, then do get in touch and let me send you the Two for Joy MS, and, ultimately finance my living-by-the-sea-but-still-very-near-London dream. Thank you!

Post Office Stress Disorder

With no apologies or prevarication I am going to launch straight into an Angry Old Woman style rant. The Post Office and Royal Mail. Arrgghh!

This morning I had a letter to post which needed definitely to arrive by tomorrow. Now, in the good old days, there was a little something called a first class stamp which would take care of that; pop it in the post box, job done. But not now. In a cunning sleight of hand, by making first class post so notoriously slow and unreliable Royal Mail have created a market for themselves to charge £6.22 for one letter in order to guarantee next-day delivery’. Win win or what. And for ‘Guaranteed Next Day Delivery’ you can’t just pop a letter in the convenient box at the end of the road, you have to go to the Post Office, which leads me on to gripes number two, three and four.

The small post office counter which used to exist in our local newsagents closed a few years ago. Several local businesses have expressed interest in opening a new one, but have always been defeated by the sheer amount of bureaucracy involved. So my local post office is now a mile away. Not that far, maybe, but I’m not in a rural village, I’m in densely populated transport Zone 3 in London. I also have a four-year-old, and, for anyone who hasn’t tried this, motivating a small child to walk a mile in very cold temperatures and light snow (April is proving indeed to be the cruellest month) with only the promise of a visit to the Post Office at the end of it is very difficult indeed. In fact probably impossible. I only managed to get there by throwing the additional incentives of a babyccino at Costa and a browse in Waterstones into the mix, and it still took us over half an hour and more coaxing and cajoling than my limited supplies of patience can easily cope with.

When we finally arrived at the Post Office, chilled to the very marrow of our bones, the queue was out of the door. As we inched forward and finally made it into the building, I could see why that was. Only two, out of a potential nine, windows were open for regular business. There were dedicated windows for passport checks and travel currency (surely not because they’re money spinners?), but all but two of the other windows were resolutely closed. I will gloss over the next half hour. Suffice it to say that my already frayed patience did not receive the convalescence it so badly needed. I think that, of the two of us, my daughter actually coped better, deciding to use the queue barriers as bars for an impromptu gymnastic display.

I will admit to a degree of puzzlement and irritation at the member of post office staff standing a little to one side of the queue at a booth advertising quotes for Post Office mortgages. He didn’t receive one enquiry the entire time I was there. Strangely enough it would seem that most of the people visiting the Post Office this morning were there to post a letter or a parcel rather than to take out an impulsive secured loan. I suppose it is hard to predict these things. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that this member of staff could have been better employed by opening another window and serving customers. I subjected him to a series of Paddington Bear hard stares, and thought that he’d got the hint as he disappeared into the dim recesses behind the counter. I was overly optimistic though; he never reappeared in any capacity, so I think I must have just scared him.

When we finally reached the front of the queue my letter was dealt with very competently, albeit at eye-watering expense. Did I mention? £6.22 to ensure a letter gets there tomorrow. However, gripe number four arose when the lady behind the counter concluded our transaction by giving me the hard sell for a Post Office credit card. Now, ignoring what you may think are the rights and wrongs of credit being pushed on people when the pusher has no way whatsoever of knowing their financial circumstances or ability to repay, when you have a very long queue and very limited availability of staff it would seem to me to be simple common sense to stick to providing the services which have actually been requested. You know, just to save a little time.

So there we go. Rant over. I’m feeling a little calmer for having got that off my chest, so I won’t raise my stress levels again now by discussing the Call & Collect system for parcels delivered when you’re out. I’m sure there are excellent reasons why a parcel not delivered on Monday morning cannot be made available for collection at the sorting office down the road for at least 48 hours.

Anna and I refuelled with babyccino and hot chocolate at Costa. An Easter nest cake may have been partaken of as well. And then had a very enjoyable half hour browsing in lovely Walthamstow Waterstones and taking advantage of their ‘Buy One, Get One Half Price’ Easter holidays offer on children’s books. There was no way I could face the walk home in the now near-blizzard conditions though, we gave in and got the bus.