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.