Nine years have almost passed since, with my newborn and firstborn (same baby) in my arms, the community midwife made a last housecall (do they do home visits anymore?) before cutting me loose to navigate my way through babydom. My tear was healing nicely, the cord had dropped from the infant’s belly button, I had survived my first bout of mastitis, and now the answer to ten little questions would reveal my mental state. I scored well. The nurse was happy that my daughter was getting a good start in life. There weren’t any obvious anxieties. In response to her closing gambit of any worries she hadn’t covered… I blurted out my biggest concern over where my girl would end up going to secondary school! That’s years away she consoled and mumbled something about seeing her out of nappies first.
Well those years have gone by so fast and that niggle about schools stayed. With the passing of time, it’s become more of a worry as Year 7 looms ahead. Like a lot of families living in Greater London, we have a nice selection of primary schools for our kids but things seems to fall apart when it comes to the secondaries. Our local comp, an academy, has a dismal reputation which ofsted reports (I started reading those along with my Gina Ford Contented Baby Book) upholds.
I want to be proven wrong. A couple of years ago, I called the school to see if I could have a tour or attend an open day. They asked what year my child was in and were dismissive when they realised it would be another four years, if ever, before she’d be a student there. I explained that if I didn’t think the school ‘a good fit’ (polite-speak for ‘if I find it sucks’), I’d need those years to mastermind our way in to a new neighbourhood with a different catchment. They never got back to me with a date so I only got to visit the school this year – 2 years ahead of the commitment. It was such a horrid wet day that even Hogwarts would be pushed to make an impression. It sucked.
So why bring all this up today? Well, earlier I arranged to meet some local pals for coffee and it didn’t take long until our conversation got round to the schools conundrum. Jane* has one son in Year 6. He’s a bright boy and is being tutored. Meg* is mother to a Year 6 child as well. Also tutored and sitting a lot of entrance exams right now for fee-paying schools. They’d prefer not to go down that route but if they get offered the local academy they will. Jo*’s eldest child has just started secondary and managed to get offered a good Catholic school but it involves a 14 mile round journey. It’s worth mentioning that Jo, Meg and me are church goers and so have a shot at getting a faith school for our children, an option Jane doesn’t have and she feels this unfair.
A Catholic secondary school has just been approved for the area and building is already underway. The council’s decision to go ahead with the school has divided opinion, even in this morning’s coffee clique, so we avoided the topic. But then a lot of people in our neighbourhood can afford, should they decide it, to send their kids to private school and I can not. Are we not excluded too then, not based on faith but on income. On choices we made along the way – jobs DH and I took or didn’t take which have us here today where we don’t have the means or immediate prospects to afford to pay for a private school or even the tutoring to have a stab at the one local good grammar that selects on ability. Why should my very able daughter be penalised because of our shortfallings.
When our conversation moved on to tutoring, I was almost relieved that, at this point in time, it’s not even an option for us. A local tutor, who lives minutes away from our coffee stop, in the biggest house on the best street, sees children for 90 minutes in groups of 12 at £25 a child. Because of the whole panic about avoiding the Academy, parents are willing to invest up to £400 a month in tutor fees to have their child prepped to take an exam which only the brightest sit and even then their chances of getting offered a place are about 1:20. When I was made redundant I did think about training (training! It’s a totally unregulated game – you are as good as your intake) as a tutor but don’t think I’d feel good about being part of the hot-house system not to mind dealing with parents and their pressure cooker kids and those odds. Last month, classmates of Meg’s were mysteriously coming down with bugs days before private school entrance exams as Meg’s mother spurned offers of ‘extra tutoring’ during weekdays and school hours. A pal of mine with a Year 6 daughter wondered why so few children accepted invites to her daughter’s ice-skating party until one parent admitted they didn’t want to chance an injury that would jeopardise sitting those papers.
None of my coffee mates went to private school themselves. Indeed one of our party said her school was worse that our local academy. And these three are smart, articulate, well grounded women with good careers. So why the panic and the intense interest in our kids paths? I can’t explain it. Don’t be surprised if Gina Ford revises her baby bible and somewhere between weaning and potty training she includes a perspective on the school dilemma. Maybe she’ll have the answer.
*real pals at a real coffee bar just not with these names.