Saturday, 21 November 2009

Schools, the discussion starts here

We have to choose primary schools for our eldest in the next few months. Yesterday we received the brochure containing the three dozen or so schools in the borough from which we have to choose three ranked in order of preference. It's not very useful.

There are no photos of the schools, just generic stock pictures from the file marked 'happy school kids'. There are some statistics, which are useful if you know how to interpret them; not always that straightforward. You might think that if places awarded are fewer than applications made this is a popular school. But if you then check out places available and these are greater than places awarded, people must have declined places to send their children elsewhere. So you have to work at it a bit. But at least they provide the raw figures.

Unfortunately, these are the only useful bits of data in the seventy-eight page brochure. The copy is quite humorously repetitive. Take your pick from: 'vibrant', 'warm', 'inclusive', 'friendly', 'happy', 'diverse'. Is 'warm and vibrant' better or worse than 'friendly and inclusive'? There's a danger in bringing some Kremlinology to bear, perhaps interpreting 'vibrant' as 'chaotic and out-of-control'; or 'diverse' as 'most of our pupils don't speak English as a first language'. But it's probably best not to over-interpret them. I'm sure they mean what they say, which is not much.

Anyway, what the vast majority of parents would like to read are words like 'traditional', 'strict', 'rigorous', 'disciplined'. No chance of that though - I can't imagine any head could have got to their current eminence professing such 'core values'.

So you're really left to work out for yourself what the schools are like. Perhaps this is what it comes down to anyway, and perhaps it always has done - you ask around, work off personal recommendations. That's certainly what we're doing.

But this, it seems, is disapproved of. One of the brochure's highlighted pieces of advice is 'Don't listen to gossip, what's right for other children might not be for yours'. Advice that would also lead you to disregard the stats above, which (when interpreted) provide guidance based on other parents' choices: 'Don't follow the actions of others, what's right for other children might not be for yours'. We know best so don't bother getting your information from anyone else. It makes you grateful for the Ofsted stats, which, however, are not provided here.


worm said...

It must be a nightmare finding a good school in London!!! I suppose the hardest bit would be finding a place where all the teachers arn't guitar-playing happy clappers who spend all day telling your children how their evil parents have ruined the environment and killed all the cute pandas.

Kevin Musgrove said...

It must be a nightmare full stop. All the schools will produce stock data and stock commentary, all of which have to conform to the diktats of Education Industry, Political Imperative and Newspaper Editorialists. Hence the buzzwords and repetitions - for all that the intended audience is the prospective parent the content is designed to pass the judgement of the suits.

I suspect there's a lot to be said for visiting each school on your shortlist to give the physical environment the once-over. Probably at the end of the day so that you can see the faces of the children as they leave.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The British skool system seems to be very strange beast these days - and a nightmare not least of all for the teachers - and will presumably favour parents who are articulate and have the resources to taxi their kids around even more than it did in my day. I sincerely hope your kid is happy wherever he ends up.

Anonymous said...


Vibrant and happy are suspect enough, but you must avoid at all costs the school that tells you its goal is to educate a mysterious entity called "the whole child". Such a boast should be met with a look of alarm and the response: "What, including the dirty bits?"

Find the teacher, the rest is detail.

Sean said...

Sell your house, buy a plane ticket, go to Australia.

Britain is a terrible place for children.

Bunny Smedley said...

Whatever you decide, you'll need to be prepared for most of your friends to view your eventual decision purely as commentary - harsh, unpleasant, unfair commentary - on their own parenting decisions, since there is literally nothing more likely in Britain to bring out defensiveness, chipiness and near-psychopathic resentment than choices relating to primary education. So, err, enjoy!

Seriously, though - children, at least if they are lucky enough to have reliably kind and interested parents, are usually pretty resiliant little brutes, who'll make the best of whatever nest of vipers into which the education system here eventually pitches them - and just think of the amusing anecdotes the more grotesque educational anomalies tend to generate in later life!

(If you want some advice, though - ignore the parents, and try to chat with the children who've emerged from these places - the ones who look you in the eye and have something interesting to say are probably a better advertisement for their school than the ones who e.g. growl, while trying to nick your iPob and mobile phone ...)

Gaw said...

Worm: I'm not sure there's any escape from that - it's to be found on tv and in books too. Anyway, there's nothing better than roasted panda.

Kevin: That must be right. We'll be going to open days, and went to a couple last year. The teachers are all tremendously well-meaning and niceness is pleasantly everywhere. But I just keep remembering bastardly, tweed-wearing Mr Johnson whose reign of terror made me good at maths, despite my total lack of ability. Not to be found!

Gadjo: We're very lucky, really, as there's a decent school five minutes walk away. One of the few advantages of living in London with respect to education is there's a reasonable chance of avoiding the dreaded school run.

Sean: You are such a ray of sunshine. Anyway, what about all those poisonous creatures, not to mention the Australians themselves.

Bunny: Thankfully, we do know some children who are going to the school we've earmarked and they do seem happy and uncowed. And we're already encountering the misery of parents who live just a little too far away from the good schools. I imagine they probably are boiling up with bitterness!

Gaw said...

Peter, sorry missed you there somehow. There's little chance of finding a teacher - you get to meet the head which can, admittedly, be very instructive. Anyway, I'm a bit scared to meet one as I fear I may be discouraged. From what I've seen they're callow, fleece- and trainer-wearing young people who barely seem out of primary school themselves.