Educating (the) Redster

Ar lan y môr mae rhosys cochion

The Redster on one of those careless summer days before the 11 plus

The Redster has started Year 6 – that’s the last year of primary school, in case you’ve lost touch – so it’s the season to include the subject of secondary schools in 95% of all conversations. I’m already bored by it, but a certain number of minutes into any conversation I find myself reciting the list of possible schools yet again. There are at least six.

I’m rubbish at this. Most parents seem to walk into the secondary school they are vetting and just ‘get a sense’ for whether or not it’s the right school for their child (or, God forbid, the child makes its own mind up and won’t be talked out of it). Neither we nor the Redster seem to have this instinct. I have to make up random criteria instead – when I was looking at primary schools it was ‘whether or not I see a white cat with one green and one blue eye on the way there’, and for last year’s round of secondary school inspections I went by ‘resemblance to Hogwarts’. Open evenings are such a circus, though, that all I really remember is how cool it was pumping air into that sheep’s lung or testing the alkalinity of toothpaste. One wise friend has encouraged me to go on a tour during a normal school day, so I’ve got the first one booked, but it won’t tell me whether or not my child is going to be allowed to carry on being the geek she really wants to be, or have to shoot up heroine in the toilets to prove herself to her peers.

The Redster has just finished sitting exams for two highly competitive selective schools. I wasn’t even considering this route until another friend reminisced about taking up smoking and reading in secret as a teenager, to disguise the fact that she was intelligent and liked studying. That pretty much described my experience of secondary education (except in my case it was alcohol and instead of reading in secret, I just stopped altogether). I would have loved a school where my peers actually, openly put some effort into their work, and these two schools have that reputation. But if she gets offered a place in either we’ll still have a dilemma. What if the peer pressure to get good grades actually tips her over the edge? You hear about self-harm and anorexia and just way too much pressure to succeed in these kinds of high-achieving schools, especially for girls. And the slightly less pressured school of the two is an hour’s journey away by two buses, which I don’t feel great about either.

The alternative is applying for one of the three local schools. Of course the nearer the school, the worse the reputation. School 1 (2 buses, 25 minutes away) has an outstanding Ofsted, but its catchment washes in and out of our street like the tide. School 2 (1 bus, 15 minutes away) has a good Ofsted, though not great academic results. The last Ofsted reported that a third of its students have social, behavioural, emotional or educational special needs. School 3 (20 minutes’ walk through the park – 10 minutes on a bike) recently came out of special measures and is now classed as ‘needs improvement.’

This last school has a terrible reputation, and most middle class parents seem to up sticks and leave the area to find an alternative to Schools 2 and 3. I spoke to a local resident the other day who actually rented a flat for six months near the school everyone thinks you should send your child to, 2 miles up the road, to get her daughter in. (She’s not proud of herself but felt there was no other option.) By startling contrast, I bumped into a father in the summer (white, English, professional) who resolutely sent his children to School 3 because It Is The Local School. I think at the time it was still in special measures. He does not regret it one bit. He pointed out that a large proportion of the school are immigrants, a population which tends to be very aspirational and eager to prove themselves academically. His daughter’s group of friends are all keen students, and last summer she took her maths GCSE a year early, and got an ‘A’.

The other thing about School 3 is that it has a new head who is gradually turning the school around. Some friends of mine have suggested that it might be like buying at the bottom of the stock market – perhaps we should get her in now, before its reputation reverses and it becomes oversubscribed. Right now it’s so undersubscribed, some class sizes would be the envy of a private school.

Who knows? Mr Suburbanite is clearly feeling nervous that I might try to sacrifice our daughter’s education for my ‘principles’. I don’t want to do that – I just want her to be somewhere where she and her inner geek can flourish. At the end of the day we may not have a lot of choice anyway. So we’ll do our round of open evenings…and if we spot a ginger cat with green eyes chasing a white feather in a school car park, that can be our first choice.

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7 thoughts on “Educating (the) Redster

  1. It’s worth knowing that – unusually for most cities – London’s schools outperform the rest of England – but peer group is the main thing. I was an unmistakeable geek back when we were just called nerds and was miserable even at a school where academic prowess was not frowned upon. Can you gather together a group of like minded friends and act as a secret middle class sleeper cell in School 3? As long as the Redster doesn’t feel that she’s failed in not getting into the selective schools…

    • Sadly, I don’t know any like-minded parents with kids the same age as the Redster in this area. Though perhaps choosing to go there would influence/reassure others in the neighbourhood with younger kids. I heard of a middle class dad who is so exasperated with School 3’s reputation that he called a meeting at the nearest primary school (which should act as a feeder school but doesn’t) to have a myth-busting session about it. Turns out it’s not true that girls get regularly abused in the toilet block after all…

  2. We ‘bought at the bottom’ with the primary school two minutes walk up the road – it even has the same postcode as us, so it’s definitely our Local School. Our thoughts were as followed, although the stakes are obviously higher in secondary school:
    1 – we felt it important to be in the school that connected our local community, and it was obvious which one that was. Everything and everybody about it is very local, and by living so close we find out a lot more about what is going on in our community outside school.
    2 – my children’s peer groups live close by. Seth’s best friend loves two doors down, and Amelia’s lives in the road behind with a garden backing onto ours. I won’t need to intricately plan when they can spend time together and they will get the chance to spend more time with each other, which – I hope – means that they will be able to build deeper friendships.
    3 – I am building relationships with other mums (and by extension dads). There are five of us who frequently get together after the school run, and can share our lives to an extent that we wouldn’t be able to if we were all far flung.
    4 – teachers aren’t daft. They know who the smart geeky kids are who will achieve, and will the work with them. Our teachers so far have all gone out of their way to engage the kids in ways that their classmates aren’t quite up to yet.
    5 – teachers aren’t daft #2. They know who the smart parents are. Our reception teacher particularly has picked up that we are relatively intelligent and educated, and have gone out of their way to spend time with us and speak to us about things other parents might not grasp. So, for example, we have had explained to us why Amelia is in the ability group she is in, and they have been completely on board with Seth’s crazy reading ability.
    6 – My parents were both teachers, and when I talked to them about our kids and our school choices for them, they said something very interesting: that they always knew which kids were going to do well by how involved the parents were. Whatever a child’s ability, what really counted was the input of parents at home, and the fact that it occurred to us to ask these questions essentially proved that we were engaged enough for our child torea h their potential in whichever schoolsthey found themselves.

    I realise that at this stage in life a lot of this won’t count for you, but hopefully you will feel encouraged – and any of your followers who have primary aged kids might also be helped!

    • Thanks Abbie – those are good points. Sadly the Redster’s primary school has not nurtured the brighter kids as much as they could – it’s not been bullied out of her, but she and similar kids have often not been challenged enough and got bored. So I’m aware of that particular danger – but it’s reassuring to hear how much you can influence things as an involved parent.

  3. Pingback: The bare-faced truth about choosing a secondary school | Subversive Suburbanite

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