Page last updated at 20:49 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

10 things not to say about school places

Parents celebrating
Less can be more when it comes to getting good news

More than half a million families in England are finding out whether their children have got the secondary school places they wanted.

It's an anxious moment for parents. Is it going to be a happy ending or disappointment? Is it going to be sharing good news or putting on a brave face?

The schoolgate becomes a diplomatic minefield. Some parents are feeling huge waves of relief while others have very bruised feelings.

It's not a good time to say the wrong thing.


1) "Have you heard our fantastic news?"

You've got the result. It's the outcome you were hoping for - a place at that ambitious, high-achieving, superbly-equipped school up the road. It's a rather smug feeling of mutual self-approval.

But it's schoolgate poison to assume that everyone wants to share your good news. There are other people who are deeply unhappy with the place they've been given. This could be a party popper at a funeral moment.

Across the country, about one in five families won't get their first preference school - and in some cities this will rise to one in three.


2) "At least we didn't end up at..."

Don't go there. Because that's exactly where their child will be going. There's some cruel law of conversation that the place you're about to write off will be the place where the other person's child will be starting in September.

There might be all kinds of headlines about "challenging" and "underachieving" schools at the bottom of the league tables, but someone's children are going there.

There are still about 250 secondary schools below the "national challenge" threshold of at least 30% of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths.


3) "I'm sure she'll be very happy there."

Aaaagh. This translates as: "It's a pity she didn't get in where you obviously would have preferred."

It also carries a distinct whiff of patronising the aggrieved party. It implies that this poor child is going to be happy with something that everyone else knows is a bit rubbish.


4) "I'm sure they'll keep in touch when they leave."

As in, your child is going to be stuck in that sink school, but mine is going to that all-conquering academy with its own heli-pad, film studio and Olympic swimming pool. Maybe they can e-mail.

Among the stresses of the school admissions process is the break-up of friendship groups. There's nowhere on the form to say "All his friends are going there."


5) "Not everyone's academic."

Just pour a little more petrol on the fire and stand well back. There are still more than 160 schools which select on ability - and many others where there are tests and assessments as part of the application process.

Not getting a place in an academic school is a sensitive subject for parents. Tread carefully before going down the road of "everyone's different".

Local schools are often seen in terms of a pecking order - and it's a characteristic of the English school system that the more academic schools are seen as top of the pile, while vocationally-strong schools are seen as less desirable.


6) "I've heard the new head is really going to turn the place around."

This is thinly-disguised code for an educational rescue operation taking place in a disaster zone. Their child is going somewhere that can only improve... once the police have secured the perimeter.

It's a way of sounding optimistic about a "difficult" result. It's in the tradition of football managers "taking positives" out of a home drubbing.

See also: "I've heard the sports facilities are second to none."


7) "Will you be going private?"

A tricky conversation. Going to a private school might be an option if you've got the money. But it's an expensive option and there can be ideological sensitivities to observe.

And if you're going to flash the cash to avoid a school place you don't think is good enough, make sure you're not sharing this information with someone who is about to send their child to the school you're trying to avoid.

See also: "We were lucky to have somewhere on our doorstep." Yes, extremely lucky you could spend half a million quid buying a doorstep outside the school gates.


8) "Better make the best of it."

This stoic attitude means getting on with what fate, or in this case the postman, has delivered. But don't try this approach on someone determined to overturn a school place decision. They are already out in their front garden with a digital tape measure to see if the distance ruling was accurate. And why is it always about how crows fly? How did they get a monopoly on direct flight?

For those unhappy with a decision, there is an appeals process, oversubscribed schools have waiting lists and there are law firms moving into this territory.


9) "I'm sure he'll find a friend there."

This means: "How the hell is he going to fit in there?"

The school applications process brings out some deep-seated tribal instincts - with a kind of social flocking process happening each year. Private conservations take place about whether a school is "right". Will there be other children who are similar? Or will they stand out like a sore thumb?

These questions about identity - including class, race and religion - are bubbling away below the surface when people look at where their children will be spending their formative secondary school years.


10) "It's not quite what we were hoping for, but..."

The toughest conversation of all if you've been disappointed is with your son or daughter. How do you keep them motivated for their new school if the mood music is already about failure?

The commitment and support of parents is going to be vital to how well a child achieves in secondary school. Not least because you're going to be doing all their homework for them. Maybe with a little help from Professor Google.

Do you have any advice to share on what not to say?

"Well, I have heard they're quite picky..."
Rowena, Maidstone

"Of course Jeremy won a full scholarship to The Grammar School, but we do make a charitable donation to the bursary fund to help poor children."
John, Nottingham

"I've heard that the metal detectors have cut out a lot of the knife crime there..."

Dominic, Clacton-on-Sea

Someone I knew years ago was heard protesting loudly at the school gates "Of course, I'll be challenging that decision!" She did and her daughter was the one who struggled for two years before changing to a school she was happier in.
Cats, Kent

My child chose his school. I felt it was important as he's going to spend the next five to seven years of his life there. I'm really hoping we get his choice. Going to a school he's actually happy about going to is half the battle won as far as I'm concerned.
Ren, Birmingham

It's such an unequal system that you need to be rich, relentless, fraudulent or lucky just to get a basic school place. Bad schools are bad schools often because of bad parents. It's parents who don't care about their kids' schooling or who expect the school to outperform their own child-rearing skills that create so much anxiety in the system.
Sean, London

I really don't get this new obsession with getting into 'the right schools'. All my siblings and I went to the local school that happened to be in the next village. We grew up Asian in a very white, Christian area and if my parents had starting thinking about race and religion and background, they'd have been shipping us into Wembley every morning! Go to the school nearest, stop making ghettos and take some responsibility for how your kids turn out!
Sairah, London

Your child has a future. They have a place in a secondary school. Be thankful you live in a country where this is possible. Millions of children will never get that chance.
D.C, Aberdyfi Wales

It is VERY important that the young people in question (it is not all about the parents!) feel that their parents are really proud of them no matter which school they are going to. This means being very careful what you say to, and in front of, the child right from the beginning of the process.
Vivien McLean, Ashford, Kent

At least if you have a mainstream child, the school you choose has a choice, if you have a child in the 'special needs' sector you might as well buy a ticket for the national lottery. We are having to appeal, so far it is already costing a small fortune, but the most important thing is giving our son a future rather than shutting the door on him educationally which is what the county would rather do.
Alice, Laverstoke, Hampshire

I work in what was a nationally challenged school. This statement attaches an unwarranted stigma to a school with an excellent array of capable staff who are there to do the very best for the community they work with. Because of that title even though our results are now amongst the best there will still be parents who refuse to allow the children to come to the school. This will lead to broken friendships, bullying based on the school the child attends and a loss of community cohesion this is one of the reasons schools fail although not the only reason.
K, Co Durham

Surely this will result in poor schools getting worse and better schools getting better? Do we really want an educational gap like that?
Robert, Edinburgh

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