The Adventure of Getting a Primary School Place

Getting your child into the right primary school is actually a bit of an adventure, and not in a good way. It’s a gamble, a game of risk and, in actual fact, no matter what we do, the outcome is not really in our control. Like all parents of four year olds, I spent the end of last year researching, visiting schools and submitting the application, then waiting the long four months for the verdict: which school would my Noah actually be going to?

I read all of the Ofsted reports, analysed the data and made arrangements to go and see seven local schools. The school visits set my mind whirling. At the first school I visited, I was informed along with the other parent being shown around, that if we didn’t put the school down as first choice, we stood no chance of getting in. Schools in our area are heavily oversubscribed. So if Noah didn’t get into his first choice, it was entirely possible he wouldn’t get into his second, third or even fourth choice?! It made me feel a bit sick.

Education is such a fundamental part of childhood. In the culture we live in – the culture of target setting and exams – primary school is not about cultivating a rounded human being, it’s about results. Sad but true. And Noah has to survive in this world so, of course, my husband and I wanted to do everything in our power to give him the best start.

Private v State

Having been to private school myself, and having worked in local state schools, I can conclude that I am a believer in the state. As far as I can see, there are two main differences which make private schools more successful than many state schools: funding and entrance exams. Private schools have more money. Pupils have their own text books – there is no one-between-two malarkey. Pupils have access to a wide range of equipment and facilities. If you go to a private secondary school, you have usually had to take an entrance exam to get in. You have been selected by your performance. You have been pitted against other eleven year olds and you came out in the top half. You are bright. When you go to a private school, everyone around you is bright. And that makes life easier.

Here is one thing I am 100% sure of: teachers in private schools are absolutely not any better than teachers in state schools. When I was at school, I had a lot of good teachers and one or two brilliant teachers. I also had a lot of awful teachers. I had teachers who could be bullied by twelve year olds. I had teachers who gave us the wrong information about what was in our GCSE exams. And that’s what really matters – who is standing in front of the class – isn’t it?

And so I am a believer in state education. So much so that it didn’t even cross my mind to put my Noah down for the local private school. I am not against private schools by any means. Private school stereotypes really wind me up. You know the ones about Mummy and Daddy owning ten acres of land with a swimming pool, tennis courts and stables as well as a property or two in the South of France? In reality, for over half of the people who went to my school, Mummy and Daddy had to work their little middle-class bottoms off to afford to send their children there. My school friends and I were not born with silver spoons in our mouths.

Truth be told, if our choice of local state schools had not been good, I would have sold my soul to send my Noah private. No question about that.

Church v Non-Church

I always had a vague notion that I would like my child to go to a church school. My husband and I both went to Christian schools. I wouldn’t say either of us are devout Christians. I can’t speak for my husband, but I don’t live by every word of the Bible. In my opinion, a lot of biblical ideas are outdated in the world we live in today. But I was in the church choir when I was a child. I went to church as a teenager although neither of my parents did (I dragged my sister with me). I do believe in God and I am supportive of the Church of England. Faith is a gift and I would at least like my Noah to have the choice to believe or not to believe. If you have no religion in the first place, it must be more difficult to acquire one when you are older.

The school I had always had in mind was the one attached to our parish church, but when I went to Noah’s catchment school, I really liked it. It is surrounded by lovely grounds, has a warm atmosphere and is multicultural and modern. But did I prefer it to the church school?

The Ofsted for the church school is outstanding whereas the Ofsted for the catchment school is good with outstanding behaviour. However, the Head at the catchment school has recently qualified as an Ofsted inspector and they are expecting an outstanding grade at their next inspection. As I said, my head was spinning. I am writing about this as if it was my decision. Of course, my husband had an opinion (or ten) but because he was in Vienna, I visited the schools on my own so, essentially, I was more in a position to compare them than he was.

In the end, the decision came down to two things. First of all, my heart leaned towards an Anglican school. Second of all, the Ofsted.

Here is something I know about Ofsted grades: they change all of the time. I have been a teacher for nine years and have worked in three schools. Not one of these schools has maintained a consistent Ofsted grade for the whole time. The Ofsted inspection criteria itself has changed at least three times in those nine years. Just because you send your child to an outstanding school, it doesn’t mean it will be outstanding for the whole time he/she is there. And the same applies to a good school or even an inadequate school. But the church school has always been outstanding. Even Ofsted couldn’t find any points for improvement on their last inspection. That counts for something. So first choice was church, second choice was catchment.

The Verdict

It was a long wait from when I submitted the application in November, to the 18th April when we’d find out the verdict. We stood a very good chance of Noah getting in to our first choice school. There was an eight point criteria for submissions and we should have been at number three seeing as we were regular church attenders in Vienna. Logic told me that Noah would get in. But you can never be sure.

The verdict would be published on the Essex schools website at midnight on the 18th. I had no intention of staying awake until midnight: I would find out in the morning as soon as I woke up. My subconscious obviously thought otherwise. I woke up five minutes before midnight. Naturally, I reached for my iPad to log on to the website. The room was lit up by the light from the screen. My husband stirred.

“What are you doing?” he growled.

“It’s five minutes to midnight. I’m logging on.”

He tutted and turned over.

I logged on and watched the time changing 11.56, 11.57…0.00 and nothing happened. I pressed refresh. Every other parent of a four-year-old in Essex obviously had the same idea. The page went blank and wouldn’t reload. After five minutes of pressing refresh, refresh, refresh, the page still wouldn’t load and my husband was getting annoyed.

“Leave it till the morning,” he said. “You’ll find out as soon as you wake up.”

I pressed refresh for a couple more minutes.

“This is not fair,” my husband protested. “You don’t have to go to work in the morning!”

“Yes, I do!” It gave me great satisfaction to inform him. Hahaha. He had forgotten that I am, in fact, a working woman now.

But I put the iPad down. My husband went back to sleep. I picked up my phone and checked my email under the covers so I wouldn’t disturb Sleeping Beauty. I did this several more times. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to go to sleep until I found out what school Noah was going to.

At 12.50 a.m. Noah did me a favour and woke up. I went in and cuddled him (he was scared apparently) and then kissed him goodnight and left. I strode straight back into our room and picked up the iPad. This time the website let me log in.

The boy was in the school.

Even as I write this (four days later) I still feel emotional. The thing is, Noah would have been okay whatever school he got into. All the schools in this area are outstanding or good with outstanding behaviour. I told myself this at least a thousand times in the run up to the 18th April.

But Noah will be going to the best school in the area. He is lucky. We are lucky. And it does feel good.

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At his first Nativity – the first of many
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The Adventure of Sending Your Child to an Ofsted-Free Nursery

As a teacher, I know all about Ofsted. I have been through three Ofsteds and conclude that the pressure an inspection puts on the staff in a school is inhumane. A couple of years ago, the Ofsted criteria was changed to become more challenging. Good is no longer good. Good is as expected; good is satisfactory. Teachers are given target levels for every pupil, targets generated by computers. I worked hard to make sure my pupils were on target. Some were, some weren’t, but for most of my classes, the underachieving and overachieving levelled out. My classes were on target and I was proud of this. Then, one day in a meeting, the head of department told us that according to Ofsted, a class where all pupils were on target was only “satisfactory”. The biggest issue I have with being a teacher, is that I give it my all and my all is only just good enough according to Ofsted. I have never actually been given an official grade by an Ofsted inspector, but if I had been, I’m pretty sure I’d have been given a 2 (a good). The lesson would have taken hours to prepare. They would have seen everything I’d got. I don’t mind the fact that I’m “good”; I mind the fact I have no idea how to be outstanding.

Just before we moved to Vienna, I had a part-time teaching position and worked Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. One Tuesday lunchtime when I was at a soft play with Noah and some of the mothers and babies from our NCT group, I got a text message telling me Ofsted would be in the school the next day. I had five lessons (a full day) and knew I’d have to produce five detailed lesson plans before the morning. Noah was 18 months old. My husband was already in Vienna. My mum and dad were at work and wouldn’t be home until after six o’clock. Noah, with his sixth sense for these things, picked up on my stress and refused to go to sleep that night. I started my lesson plans at 8pm and by 1pm I had only done four of them. Noah had woken up and needed settling six times. By 5am he was awake for the day and so was I. I was already sleep deprived and had a chest infection. It crossed my mind to call in sick. Why not? Why put myself through it? I still hadn’t done my lesson plans and I had another four to do for the next day. I knew I’d be leaving that school in a month’s time. I was stressed out of my mind. What did I owe them? But I went in anyway.

Do I think schools should be monitored? Yes. Do I think that we should expect high standards from the English education system? Of course I do. But surely, there are better ways than this?

The point of this rant is: I am not a fan of Ofsted.

And yet.

When I was going back to work after maternity leave, I wanted Noah to go to an “outstanding” nursery. He ended up going to the nursery which was on the site of my school. I couldn’t fault it. I had a perfect view of the garden from my classroom window. At 10am on Mondays and Fridays, I could usually be found gazing lovingly at Noah as he blundered around below, moving from one toy or activity to another. Meanwhile, if the classroom was in chaos around me, I was oblivious.* It was a brilliant nursery. And yet, a few months after we moved to Vienna, they had an Ofsted inspection and suddenly it is no longer an “outstanding” nursery.

*If any Ofsted inspectors are reading this, then I’m only joking. Ha ha ha…

I often wonder what Ofsted would make of Noah’s kindergarten in Vienna. There are three members of staff to seventeen children. The group is aged 1-3. Noah is the oldest child there with one other girl. The staff are strict with behaviour. They really tell the kids off. There are few structured activities. Sometimes the children make things but Noah has recently decided he doesn’t want to take part in craft activities and they do not press him. Children in Vienna have no official learning until they are 6. In England, Noah would be starting to learn the alphabet and write his name. In no way is he being challenged here. He isn’t really developing his social skills as much either, seeing as the majority of the children are a lot younger than him. There are stairs in the room which lead up to a play area – one year olds who are just learning to walk can make their way up and down. If Noah falls over, no one notices and cleans the cut. There are no incident forms to sign. Before he was toilet trained, he was often there for four hours without his nappy being changed. Or he was put in a nappy two sizes too small. Their support when Noah started toilet training was non-existent. They refused to let me leave his potty and tried putting him on a big toilet on day 1. He was afraid he was going to fall in and decided he was never, ever, under any circumstances going to go to the toilet at kindergarten. And apart from on two occasions in the past year, he hasn’t. I suppose Austrian kindergartens must be subjected to rules and regulations but over here, there is no such thing as Ofsted.

The time has now come for me to find Noah a nursery or pre-school place for January when we come home to England. Some pre-schools have told me to contact them nearer the time. Most are full up for the year. One nursery told me they had a place for him. Great, I thought: I’ll put him down for that one and it’s all sorted. One less thing to worry about. But wait. I’ll just check with a friend who sent her children there to see what she thought of it. And I’d better read the Ofsted report.

Inadequate.

As soon as I saw the 4 at the top of the report, there was no way my Noah was going there.

Why was it inadequate?

  • Because the teaching isn’t consistently good. At Noah’s kindergarten, there is no teaching: there is only supervising.
  • The garden isn’t made full use of. At Noah’s kindergarten, they take them to the park most days (across a road with the kids walking two by two). Noah often comes home with mud in his hair and leaves in his pants. There is also a small balcony for a bit of fresh air.
  • Documentation isn’t up to date and readily available. I have no idea what documents are kept at the kindergarten.

So why am I worried about an inadequate nursery in England, when it would not be of any lesser standard than the kindergarten he currently attends here in Vienna? Because I want the best available for my son.

The kindergarten here leaves a lot to be desired, but it is still good for him. It is important he is left with others, not with me 24/7. He’s enough of a Mummy’s Boy as it is, I dread to think what he’d be like if he was never out of my company. The kindergarten has high expectations for behaviour and the staff aren’t afraid to raise their voices if the children are misbehaving. When we went to the parents’ meeting, they were astounded that Noah was ever naughty at home. At kindergarten, he always does what he is told. So at least we know he can be an angel when he wants to be. He has also made firm friends which he probably wouldn’t have done at such a young age going to nursery twice a week like he did in England. There is also the fact that it is a German-speaking kindergarten. He has been immersed in a culture different from his own. He has learnt about Austrian traditions and been exposed to the German language. He won’t retain any of this but I think his brain has been made receptive to it as a result. It will stand him in good stead.

In England, the best available is something else. Noah will not be milling around in a playtime world of his own imagination until he is 6 years old. He will have to flourish in the hard, cruel world of Ofsted inspections, of KS2 SATS data and a government which is currently talking about implementing an assessment system for 4 year olds. My Noah will not be going to an inadequate nursery or pre-school. Think again.

Noah, his lollypop and the masterpiece he produced at kindergarten this morning.
Noah, his lollypop and the masterpiece he produced at kindergarten this morning.