From Denial to Reality

If I start blubbing whilst writing this entry you’ll have to forgive me.  It’s just something that keeps happening lately and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I very recently slunk quietly out of a lovely little place I can highly recommend called “Denial” and tentatively dipped one toe into something known as “Reality”.  Reality in this instance is an icy cold sea of truth with choppy shores.
What the hell am I talking about? You may well ask.  I’m talking about education.  I’m talking about choosing a school for our oldest son.  Say what?! I know, I know, how did that happen?  Well, let’s be clear, he’s not quite that age yet, he’s due to start next year but we can apply for places from this coming September so as much as I was enjoying the comforting warmth of denial, I knew deep down I’d have to leave sooner or later, and so it began.  Ofsted reports have become my reading material.  I actually misplaced my kindle and when I found it again the battery was completely depleted from having sat on the shelf untouched for so long.  Sad times.  Free afternoons have been spent taking tours of local primary schools, and many an evening spent sat on the sofa bawling my eyes out to Chris about it all.
I’m sure it can’t just be me that finds the concept truly, utterly, beyond-comprehension terrifying…right?!  I don’t know what it is about the idea but I’m completely unable to discuss it rationally for longer than 10 minutes without my stomach knotting and my tear ducts going into overdrive.
Actually, I DO know what it is.  It’s the fact that up until now Toby has spent most of his time with either me or Chris.  Admittedly he’s been going to nursery one or two days a week on and off since he was a year old but one or two days is not five days.  FIVE DAYS.  There are only seven days in a week! Five out of seven!  The majority of his waking time, from next September onwards will be spent in the care of and under the influence of someone else.  So how could this not be the single biggest decision I’ve had to make on his behalf so far?  How do you even begin to make a decision of that magnitude?
Chris is laid back, as always.  Which is not to say he isn’t interested or doesn’t care.  He’s done his own research and he’s come to every school viewing too.  But by his reckoning Toby is a bright kid, with a happy home life, and will probably be fine wherever we send him (within reason) and if not, well we’ll take him out and send him somewhere else.  He thinks high school is a more important consideration overall.  Very rational.
I am not laid back.  Or rational, apparently.
From my point of view it goes something a little like this:
  • Toby is the most precious, awesome and beautiful 3.5 year old to have ever existed in the whole world ever FACT
  • He is incredibly smart so will need lots of stimulation and encouragement to nurture his amazing abilities but without any pressure or expectation whatsoever, so that he can still enjoy being a child and have the freedom to do whatever he wants whilst he’s still so little.
  • This can only be facilitated by the perfect school with perfect teaching staff and the perfect mix of other children in the perfect setting, ideally situated to our house and with a chance of us getting a place.
*Steps slooooowly out of denial, takes a good look around, realises that a. Everyone else thinks THEIR child is the most important on earth, WTH?! As if! And b. The perfect school does not exist! Starts screaming…..*
I hate to be all “The reason I’m a psychopath is because my parents never hugged me” but I do genuinely think that the fact I went to 7 schools in total as a child is not really helping me to have perspective on this one.  I keep thinking about the horrid ones, and just how truly horrid they were, about being “the new girl” and how much that sucked, and about the good ones too, and what made them good, and amalgamating all that information and all those emotions seems to just result in my rocking backwards and forwards in my living room wailing “I DON’T WANT HIM TO GO TO SCHOOL EVER!” whilst Chris makes soothing noises (and possibly rolls his eyes behind my back, I wouldn’t blame him).
The good news, and there is good news, for which I am very grateful is that we’re very fortunate to have 10 primary schools within about a mile radius of our house all of which are rated Ofsted “Good” or “Outstanding”.  The bad news is that we’re very unlikely to get a place at about half of those and we don’t actually want places at two or three of them, so suddenly the options are a lot more limited.  And the other bad news is that the whole Ofsted thing? It’s of very limited use, or I’d argue, relevance, when it comes to actually deciding where to send your child.  I’m no expert, clearly, having only just begun to explore this strange new world, but it seems to me that Ofsted rating bears very little resemblance to the actual *feel* of a school as a stranger going in there.  So although we’ve read the reports, we’re taking them with a very large pinch of salt.
We have viewed three so far, of which we both liked two and disliked the third.
Going into it all I genuinely thought it would be a simple as that- look around them all.  Decide on a favourite and 2 runner ups, write them on the form come September and boom, this time next year find out which of the 3 we’d been offered a place at.
“Simples!” as the meerkats say.
Errr…nope! South Manchester is heavily populated with young families and there simply aren’t enough primary school places to go around.  Several of the schools are massively popular and over subscribed with people putting their children’s names down for a place before they are even born.  You heard me.  So, here we were thinking we were being quite organised, what with the deadline for applications being almost 9 months away and him not actually due to start for eighteen months, and actually, it turns out we’re too late in some instances.  The first school we looked around was really great and the teacher who showed us around was nice but she was pretty blunt about our chances of getting in, i.e. “You won’t!”  Basically they have an intake of 60 pupils per year (2 classes of 30) and they have a preschool nursery with 52 places, all of which are already taken.  Only pupils living within a 0.3 mile radius of the school were offered places at the nursery, the list was that long.  Most if not all of the nursery pupils will want a reception place at the school, which leaves only around 8 places to fill with children who didn’t go to the nursery, and again it goes on distance, as the crow flies, from the school to your house.
So even though we live 0.6 miles from that school we’re considered “too far away” so although we’re welcome to still put it down as a choice, we’d basically be wasting a choice.
It’s madness!
And this realisation, that there aren’t enough school places, and that your freedom of choice is actually a bit of a fallacy, and that your child may end up being placed somewhere you really don’t want them to go just because it’s nearby and has space, as you can imagine has done absolutely NOTHING for my anxiety levels about the whole issue.
To end on a positive note though, because I don’t want you to all start snottering all over your keyboards too: one of the other schools we looked around really surprised us.  In a good way!
I went with low expectations, purely from the size of it if I’m honest but once we were inside it didn’t actually feel like a big school.  And I don’t know if it was just that the person showing us around clearly loved the place and that was infectious or something, or the fact that every member of staff we bumped into seemed to be enjoying their job and took the time to say “hello” but whatever it was, we both got a really good vibe about it.  It is a big school, there’s no getting away from that.  Their intake is soon to increase from 60 per year to 90, which means in all likelihood when Toby starts, if he were to go there, he’d be in one of three reception classes.  It isn’t what I’d envisaged but then again see above re: my vision of the perfect school that exists only in my mind.  On the flip side though, aside from the physical space (there’s an extension being built) in terms of resources it didn’t appear stretched, there were lots of bodies about between teachers and TA’s and some of the kids had additional needs so had their own one-to-one assistants, and above all, it felt happy.
I assumed everyone wanted the same thing when it came to primary schools, so was stunned when we looked around the third school (oversubscribed and very popular) and found we pretty much hated it.  I didn’t get it.  I said to Chris “Why do people want to go there?” and he filled me in.  Apparently people choose schools for their children based on different factors.  So whilst I want somewhere Toby will be happy and well cared for, others apparently want somewhere their child will learn and learn good and produce tremendous results.  For themselves and the school it would seem.
I want Toby to achieve his potential, whatever that may be (see above re: the fact he is a genius ;)) but when he goes to school my responsibilities as a parent won’t stop, so if there are gaps in what the school can provide, I’ll fill them in.  Above all else I’d rather just know he was safe and happy.
So, despite my bawling (frequent) and rambling (endless) it would seem we may have found somewhere we’d be happy for him to go, and importantly, that we have a good chance of getting a place at with it being our most local of all the local schools.
I think this means I can stop reading Ofsted reports now, but as for bursting into tears randomly at the thought of him actually going to school? That I’m afraid, looks set to continue…

2 thoughts on “From Denial to Reality

  1. Sam Lee-Watson 06/05/2013 / 9:57 pm

    Aah it really is hell. I viewed 8 or 9 in the end and found them all so different. Like you say, there are some popular ones where you're thinking “WHY!?” and others that are pleasant surprises. I was lucky to get insider information on some of them from colleagues and also mums at T's preschool who had done it all with older siblings or had relatives/neighbours who went to certain schools and had varying experiences. We were extremely lucky to get our first choice school, like up there, here we have the overpopulation problem and last year at least 3 schools in the area had to add on a second reception class of 30 pupils to meet the Government promise that every child gets a school place. God knows how bad things are this year because I know at the time I had Theakston, 2009 was the recession year where everyone had babies and there weren't enough beds in the hospitals for the first time, and then there weren't enough nursery and preschool places when we came to it, and so on, and I think it just got worse every year. On the plus side, once you've got the eldest in, you stand a fair chance of getting the sibling in, so we should hopefully only go through this trauma once, right?

    Good luck with the search, I went mostly on gut feeling of a place, but also from paying attention to things that other people missed. There was one school that had a good reputation but their discipline techniques were undesirable (we witnessed a 5 year old get a proper bollocking, and an 11 year old sat in time out!!) and in a Year 6 classroom, a teacher was typing on a laptop onto an interactive whiteboard, and the kids were copying from it, and it had about 4 spelling errors on it! No thanks!

    Also, when you get your paperwork in September, you get like an “information for parents” booklet thing, ours was an online pdf, and it tells you how many kids got in last year on each criteria, and the furthest away the last pupil was, if that makes sense? So I used an ordnance survey online map thing to work out our distance as the crow flies from certain schools I really liked, and then looked at how many kids got in that didn't have siblings & were out of catchment, and the distance of the furthest one away to try and work out how likely a chance we had of getting in, and therefore whether or not it was a wasted choice.

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