Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions parents make. The school - its teachers, curriculum, educational philosophy, and values both explicit and implicit - will affect the child's day-to-day life. It will help shape the child's personality, view of life, behaviour, and destiny as an adult. And it will also deeply affect the lives of the parents and the life of the family as a whole.'
Ronald Koetzsch (American Educationalist)
"Isn't it all just sand and water at this age?"
Visiting schools fell firmly into my domain. My husband's reasoning for this was:
(a) I wanted to look around the schools, ask pertinent questions and assess what they had to offer our child
(b) He didn't.
To be fair, he made a good case for just sending the boy to our local school: logistically, socially and morally it was the obvious thing to do. I agreed with everything he had to say, then made arrangements to visit all the schools in our area on my own.
The first thing I noticed was that I got a gut feeling about each school as soon as I walked through their doors. It was very similar to when we were house hunting: some properties had it all but didn't click whereas others had a small box room and a crap garden but felt like home. I couldn't put my finger on it (and wouldn't want to because I know how many bogeys get wiped behind school radiators) but I always knew within 3 minutes whether this was a school I would send my child to.
Obviously the whole school is on best behaviour when the parental tours are being conducted. At no point do you see a child being given timeout, in tears because another child has whacked them or complaining about the boring work which they have to do. I tried to hang behind and peek back into the classrooms five minutes after we'd left but I didn't manage to catch them out.
At the end of every tour there was a time for questions. I would always hold back, hoping other parents would ask some of the questions on my list so that I was left with only a dozen or so. I didn't want to get a black mark next to my name before our boy had even started. Sometimes people would ask nothing (Really? There's nothing you want to know?), sometimes they clearly felt the need to seem interested and would ask something inane (What time is lunch? What kind of pencil case do they need?) and there's always some pushy parent who wants to know what the Gifted and Talented Policy is, what reading scheme they follow and whether or not they have a hotline to Mensa. (OK, that was me.)
There are obviously some questions that must be asked. If your child has a specific educational need (at either end of the ability range) you need to ensure it will be addressed. It’s imperative that you are fully confident that your child will be safe and cared for. You need to know that they have an effective Anti-Bullying Policy (any school that says they don’t have bullying would concern me. Bullying happens, you need to know how they deal with it.)
On the whole though, you are walking blind. There is no way to really know if this school will be right for your child until they are actually there and no amount of research, visits and grilling of parents in supermarket queues (again, all me) can give you that guarantee that you are making the right choice.
When it came down to it, we chose the school closest to where we live (cue smug eyebrow lift from husband) which I actually felt very happy about as it was one of the two schools I had most liked. I continued to try to feel happy about our decision when, about a month after we completed our online application form, Ofsted visited and put them into Special Measures. (It could only happen to me.)
There is then an interminably long time between the date school applications have to be in and when you actually find out whether your child has a place at your first choice school. This is usually the time in which you hear the most horror stories about the school you have chosen and Ofsted try and tell you what a bad choice you've made. (Like they know anything.)
Because we'd chosen the school at the bottom of the hill, we felt pretty confident that we would get in. Then, as the day got closer, we - and all the other parents we knew - started to feel less sure. It's our local school, of course we'll get in. It's extremely unlikely we won't get in, isn't it? What will we do if we don't get in? Before you know it, you're waiting up past midnight for the damned confirmation email to arrive.
Then it arrives and the relief you feel is immense. You haven't let them down, you've got the school you thought was best, everything is ok.
But, as the excitement subsides, another feeling creeps in to take its place. The realisation of what this actually means.
What it actually means is that your son or daughter is starting school in a few months time. The baby you were bringing home from hospital just a few heartbeats ago will be putting on a uniform and waving goodbye to you at the school gate. Your precious child will be spending six hours of every day with someone who is not you. They will make friends you don't know, learn skills you didn't teach and won't remember a word of it to tell you later.
You realise that this is just the beginning. The first step on a road that will lead to college, university, work and a life all their own.
You realise that you won't be their only influence any more.
That they won't need you as much.
That they are growing up.
That they are going.