By Sean Coughlan
A demonstration of the hoops parents will have to jump through
The scramble for secondary school places is approaching its applications deadline - and parents are feeling the pressure.
When you're in a queue to look around a secondary school where your child has almost no chance of getting a place, it doesn't exactly feel like "school choice".
It's more like school rationing - or a sprint for the lifeboats rather than a relaxed, informed decision about the best possible education for your child.
In many parts of England, it's almost time to send back the forms for next year's secondary school places.
Anyone with a child in the last year of primary school will know what I'm talking about - because they won't have been talking about anything else for weeks.
You can see knots of these parents talking conspiratorially about the schools they've visited - swapping details of prospectuses, head teachers' presentations and catchment areas measured down to the last centimetre.
In the parental chats there's a kind of sub-text.
"A really lively bunch of kids, but not quite right for my child," is a sensitively liberal way of saying a sink school with a terrifying playground.
Looking for Hogwarts on the application form
"Lots of lovely music" is a politely conservative way of saying appalling GCSE results, when you're worried that the other person might already have a child there.
Or there's the patronising: "Such a caring, unpushy environment", which means woodwork - sorry, "resistant materials" - is the strongest subject. It's a good school... for someone else's children.
"If we don't get a place in that school... we'll really have to think hard," says the person who has already checked out the private school fees.
"We're so lucky to be so accidentally near," says the family which has expended money, arguments and tears in househunting in a quarter-mile radius.
Or there's the adeptly ambiguous: "The new head is really turning it around", which means, most of the kids are starting to leave their guns at home these days.
This is a decision which will have a huge significance for a child's future. But it can feel like some kind of unfunny version of the three-legged parents' race at a school sports day.
Every time you get near to thinking you've found the right school, you're tripped up. Right exam results, but wrong place. Right place, but wrong results.
If it's so good that you want to send your child there, it's going to be too oversubscribed to get a place. It's the Catchment-22.
Open days, when hopeful parents are shepherded round schools, are a real eye-opener.
How can schools be so different in results when they are supposed to be serving the same local community?
Two non-selective schools, a few streets away from each other, have GCSE results in which one school is literally twice as good as the other. Guess which one turns away nine out of 10 applicants?
These tours, bringing PR to the 3Rs, also show how different schools can look.
There are slickly modern places where the pupils keep their work on memory sticks rather than in bookbags - and places with house points and prefects in gowns.
There are banks of gleaming computers, music recording studios and school halls filled with Latin and blazers.
But for parents, the biggest difference is between those where you can get a place and those where you can't.
An important step in the school admissions process
So people get strategic.
Being able to buy a house near a successful school, deploying those music lesson skills, belonging to a religion, being in the right ability band, the luck of the draw in a lottery, are all advantages in the "fair admissions" sweepstake.
Living near the school is the most common admissions factor, but there's nothing inherently fair about that kind of localism, particularly when it's based on how much house you can afford.
If a public employer favoured job applicants living nearest the workplace, there would be outrage. Or if a successful surgeon always gave priority to those living in nearby streets, it wouldn't seem right.
But who can blame parents for wanting to grab the best chances for their children?
It's a guilt trip either way - with all kinds of social divisions lurking just below the surface.
There are schools which use a lottery to allocate places
If you use your sharp elbows to get a good school for your child - making all those calculations about music scholarships and catchment areas - you're accused of being pushy.
If you let your child drift into the nearest school despite its quagmire reputation, you're nagged by self-doubt about letting them down.
And it raises some awkward unspoken questions. What are parents really looking for? A school where the other children are like their own?
Or are they actively avoiding schools with the "wrong" kind of kids? What kind of judgements are being made about accents, ambitions, class and race?
When parents are trying to help their children get a head start in life, whose heads are they going to trample over to get there?
Because, whichever hoops are jumped through, someone's children are going to end up in the worst and the best schools.
Here is a selection of your comments:
I am at this moment in time filling in the forms for secondary transfer. I live in WD3 which is supposed to be the catchment area for my local school, I don't think I have a hope in hell's chance of my son actually getting into that school as they like to cream the best students on academic ability. I still have no hope of him getting a place as we just don't live near enough to the local school school gate. Measured in metres after the academic students have been allocated. Another anxious parent who is not sleeping well at night!!!
Adele Deanus, Hertfordshire
I live around the corner from the best secondary school in the area, one of the best schools in the country. Didn't move there because of the school, but because of the house and the area. I get leaflets pushed through my door from people wanting to rent out my address in order to get their children into the school. Some kids are coming miles by train and bus to go there - it's ridiculous that schools can be SO very different in results that people have to do this for their kids.
Hannah, Potters Bar, Herts
Mine are currently in years 8 and 10 so I've worn this T-shirt twice. Try to be open minded but have a back up plan. Ours unfortunately was remortgage plus loan to a private school, after 2 years of bullying. Home schooling was plan 3 if we couldn't raise the money. The comps aren't full of feral kids, but it only takes one disengaged individual to make a lot of children's lives miserable and make the lessons so disruptive they are pointless.
I used to think that parents who went to a lot of trouble to get their children into high performing and generally white and middle-class schools were snobs or covert racists. Then I sent my daughter to an inner city comprehensive. Although I'm happy with the standard of teaching at her school, she has to put up with terrible bullying as one of the few middle-class children in the school, and she gets frustrated at the high levels of disruption during lessons. Now I'm desperate to move her to one of those snobby middle-class schools, but I can't. We live outside the catchment area of all of the schools with a reasonable reputation and as atheists, we aren't eligible to go to any of the faith schools which have wider catchment areas.
We have the rather bizarre situation where a small number of parents have hired a lawyer to get the admissions policy for our local secondary school changed. It is the distance you live from the next alternative school that matters and not how close you are to the school in question. We now expect children who could walk to the secondary school to be allocated a school further away such that they will need some form of transport! Unfortunately money talks, even in state education!
Dave, Bookham, Surrey
We are in this position having a child in year 6. Our problem is that the local school, which has a really good reputation is closing and will merge with another school, with not so good results when he will be in year 10. This is so frustrating for us and him. At present a group of parents are taking the Sheffield council to court over this decision, we shall have to see what happens...
The article makes no mention of that most unpleasant tactic - renting a property in the catchment area for a few months. I've even seen a family 'break up' - mother and eldest child pretend to live in a rented flat, but get back together with father and the other children once a place has been secured. Of course, the younger children also go to the school under the sibling rule. For every child who gains a place that way, and each of its siblings, a family which should have got a place, doesn't.
I'm in this dilemma. My son is very bright, and with his agreement, he's just started at the local comp. They don't get the best results in their exams, but the school and the teachers seem caring enough. His grandparents on the other hand think he should go to a private school, or out-of-area grammar. Well, I went to a very good comp myself and hate this stigmatisation of comp schools. I'd like to think we can make his school a better place too by getting involved.
What really has annoyed me in the search for a decent school is that I have looked at seven different schools and the one that our son would do best at and his first choice he may not get in on distance, yet a parent who has outwardly expressed that she doesn't care about her childs education is guaranteed a place in the same school. Aagh!
If you have to jump through hoops to get in, at least the school will be full of children whose parents care about education. The grammar schools here, selecting on ability, have a wider social and ethnic mix than they would have done if the intake was purely local. Other local schools, both faith schools and other specialist ones, also do very well. Caring parents would rather be seen as pushy than dump their kids with lots of feral chavs.
Jackie, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
I am one of the bunch of feral chavs referred to in a previous email. I went to a local comp with a poor reputation. This has not been a bar to my progressing in life. Unfortunately, for a lot of children the stigmatism of going to a comp means they either become over-achievers if they are intelligent OR they accept that they are never going to succeed, fade away and remain with their "class" of people. Simply put, the current system leads to the ghettoisation of educational standards into those who can afford to buy a house near the right school and those who can't and therefore end up suffering with a downward spiral of a school which can not attract good teachers and gets worse results.
The last thing I want for my kid is to turn him into a well-qualified angst-ridden mess who crumbles every time he's confronted by someone from a less fortunate background. A bit of 'feral chav exposure' isn't always a bad thing... in small doses. On the other hand, and as a counter-point to Mr Liddle's point, consider this: are they feral chavs because they're poor, or poor because they're feral chavs? Bit of both, probably - but money alone just ain't the answer.
Joel, Beaconsfield, Bucks
The strange thing is, I'm having trouble booking time off work to attend all of these open days. My employers cannot figure out why I have to look at so many schools when the old system of - you go where's closest - was ditched. Secondly, how is this any fairer? We still have to list a minimum of six schools, and it's still pot luck which one you get! Stupid.
I am having exactly the same problem, I am not in any catchment area for a secondary school as I fall just outside and have no hope of getting in anywhere. Shame really when we live right across the road to one of the best state girl's schools in the country but because of their selectiveness and high achievement we won't get in there either. It is no longer visit the school and choose which one you want to go to but a strategic plan of which school you are more likely to secure a place at, even then some children from our area end up with no school at all and parent's re-mortgage their houses in order to pay private fees. What is this country coming to when all we hear from the govenment is education, education, education - but for who?
Nichola , Hampstead Garden Suburbs, London
I know a local lettings agent who regularly rents out a flat in a block next door to an excellent local school for a short term let. The price? £3000 a month for 6 months. That's still only the equivalent of one year's fees at a private school, so well worth it for many parents.
John, Richmond, Surrey
I think we need to get away from the idea that school admissions can ever be "fair" - what does that really mean? The biggest determinant of school performance is not the building, the teachers, or even the catchment area - it's the pupils which attend, and that means high performing schools will be always be selective. People have no issue with this is higher education (Oxford and Cambridge are very selective) so why all the liberal handwringing about selection in secondary education ?
Matt Munro, Bristol
We have just made the decision to go down the private school route. We are white - but not middle class, and definitely not well off. We cannot afford to move to a house near the better senior schools and our local state school has is so appalling that we worked out it was cheaper to do the school fees - or rather, we could space out the payments - than to move house. We would have to spend £500,000 or more on a house near good schools in our borough, and we simply cannot afford that. School fees for the next 10 years come in at way under that cost - so for us there has been no choice. To get a good education for our child we've been forced out of the state system - which is kind of backwards to how it should be!
Looking for a secondary school shouldn't be a big issue but it is because of the large number of schools with such poor results. Or to put it bluntly the number of schools that produce pupils which are failures.
Personally, I think choice has got out of hand. Our daughter goes to secondary school next year and we're now finding that our choice of primary feeder school leaves us in a low-priority criteria for the school we're living in the catchment area for! As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to "choose" the best school for my child - this is a ridiculous situation that results in "good and bad" schools. Every school should be equally funded, regardless of their results or success and every child should be able to attend a good quality secondary school close to their friends, their home and within their community.
I am one of those parents who are indeed desprately trying to just get their son or daughter into a good school near their home. Unfortunately this good school falls under the Surrey County Councils unfair policy sweepstake. Which means my child is 4th on the priority selection list because he isn't in foster care or has special needs and he doesn't have a sibling at the school already, infact it's just down to where he lives right now! This is ludicrous that we have to wait for places behind the families with siblings at the school already, especially as some of the children's families have moved away and are no longer in the catchment area. What happened to feeder school places? This is all so worrying and unnecessary pressure on the parent
Lisa, Redhill, Surrey
With the lottery that is school places now, despite having gone to a comprehensive, I would not rely on sending my kids to a state school now. In fact, in this country at the moment, there is a strong argument to say you have a moral obligation to ensure you have enough money for private education before siring a child. Even if that money is only there to be used if you can't get a grammar school place.
Isn't this why we had tests for grammar schools all those years ago? Then it was the kids who decided as it were rather than the parents.
Phil Thomas, Wokingham
Some people are just too pushy for their children. You have to remember that it is your kid and not you that has to spend seven years at the school five miles away. School should be fun as well as an education, and turning into the most stressful time of a person's life will do no good in the long run.
No choice here in rural Pembrokeshire, you've got one choice and that's it. It's a comprehensive my twin daughters go to and as their abilities differ i've watched the more academic one receive a completely different education to the less academic one. But all you can do is stand up for your child's rights and be firm and in my experience anything can be sorted. My girls mix with all sorts and it's done them no harm, if anything it's made them aware how fortunate they are. I do hate the idea that they go to the same school I did though, seems a failure on my part somehow.
Liz, Pembroke Dock, Wales
This problem is endemic througout Britain, not just England. Whilst the article mildly criticises the method used in placements ie catchment areas, there is always going to be some kind of selection process when you have demand exceeding supply. Sadly, there is no easy solution; those areas where poverty is more rife will inevitably have schools that do not perform as well as those schools that are located in areas where poverty is less of an issue. Abolish povery and the problem won't exist. Easy,no ?
J Gordon Liddle, Edinburgh, Lothian
What a hideous system we have produced! Where children's expectation of a decent education appears to be on condition of their parent's ability to move the right area, afford private education or tutoring to pass entrance exams or willingness to cheat and lie to get them into their favoured seat of education. All children should be given the opportunity to a decent education regardless of their background! This includes children who might not be highly academic but have a willingness to work hard and achieve. If we all supported our local school and got involved in making our children feel good about where and how they learn our education system would be a much better place!
Samantha, Hemel Hempstead