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.