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Choosing a school

(25 Posts)
Earlybird Fri 18-Feb-05 12:57:44

Hi all -

Get ready for a long one! DD will be entering reception in September. Our area is crap for state schools, so since Christmas we've done assessments at some private schools. Offer letters have now gone out from the various schools. I've gone from fearing we wouldn't have any options/offers to now being in the lucky position of having some choices to make. But choices can bring their own dilemmas, so thought I'd put my thoughts down to help me think it through.

School 1 - Firm offer. Very good academic reputation, with bustling, no nonsense and practical atmosphere. Extremely over subscribed, and places are hotly pursued. Mixed sex. Strong emphasis on drama, art and music in addition to scholastic. Has reputation of suiting "gregarious types" which dd is not, but she has come on by leaps and bounds with her confidence. Nice building/facilities. Know one other family at the school, who live a 10 minute walk from us, but otherwise, no one else. Downside is that it's a bit of a trek there and back, and because of location presume that many of dd's potential friends would not live close by. Don't like the idea of being perpetually in a car/on public transport. There is a school bus, but wouldn't feel comfortable putting her on it at such a young age. Also, she'd be one of the first picked up/last dropped off because of where we live - easier perhaps when she's older, but think she'll be too young for this for now.

School 2 - Firm offer. Good academic reputation, but not quite as strong as school 1....though school 2 is perceived as being on the up and improving each year. Hugely competitive to get into also. Mixed sex school, though girls/boys are educated separately. Possibly better than school 1 on pastoral care (would describe it as cosy), and individual attention. Lovely new building, fantastic location, just about walkable on a good day (if we've gotten up early enough ). Know several other children who will be going there, and like their mums alot. Downside - whispered reputation for academic "cream of the crop" girls going elsewhere at 7 to more demanding schools. This is probably my favorite sentimental choice, but I fear that I will be "aiming too low" for dd's academic future if we go here. But on the other hand, I don't want her to be unduly pressured, which could/might happen at the other schools with their rigorous reputations.

School 3 - Wait list (no idea where though). Top notch girls school with wonderful academic reputation. Good facilities, good location. Good music, art and computer labs. About 15-20 minute walk from home. No hesitation about academics or location here, but strong hesitation about social aspect. The girls at this school generally come from seriously priviledged families (saw Prince Pavlos of Greece, fgs, in the main hall when I dropped dd off for assessment) and I feel concerned about the peer pressure aspect. DD will never be deprived, but we don't live at the level many of these girls do. We can't "keep up", and honestly, don't want to. I want her to realise that there are all different types of people in the world worth knowing, and this school represents the most priviledged cocoon - though all the schools are fairly precious in that aspect. Realise that I am probably projecting some of my own insecurities on dd, but think it could be tough to fit in at that school with parents who are diplomats, city big shots, and even royalty.....but there's no denying the education is wonderful, and there would be lots of opportunities. (Do I have a chip on my shoulder?)

Another upside to school 3 is that dd could, in theory, be at this school until 18 as there is an upper school So, we'd possibly avoid the upheaval of testing at 11 for the next school. Also, is she on the wait list because she's considered borderline - would hate to put her in a situation where she struggles academically (though the school does have the repuation for nurturing girls who would struggle at bigger schools). Finally, wonder if she needs to be at a school where some men/boys are around as her dad is not in our lives....So, don't know how strongly I should pursue the waitlist situation here.

So, there we are. As a single parent, I don't have a partner to discuss this with, so I am fortunate to be able to ask the wise mumsnetters. Thanks for letting me bounce ideas off you, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts....if any of you made it this far!

marialuisa Fri 18-Feb-05 13:09:23

From my own experience as a child i think I would avoid school 3. I went to a very well-known boarding school from age 8 and whilst my father is definitely better off than most (multiple houses, flash cars) he is not in the helicopter owning classes. Seriously, the school had a heliport for parents, would usually be about 30 parked on Speech Day! I did find it a bit uncomfortable, particularly as my mum (who had residency) lives so far at the other extreme.

Between school 1 and 2, I'm not so sure. Part of me says school 2 because I think pastoral care is so important and I also don't think it would hurt your DD to be "cream of the crop" academically. I'm very glad I rebelled in my teens and ended up doing my GCSEs at a good (100% A*-C) day school rather than at a hothouse. I still got straight A*s. People who stayed on got the same grades but were under a lot more pressure.

Gobbledigook Fri 18-Feb-05 13:10:19

I'm no expert but my thoughts and personal preferences would mean:

Not a girls school - for me ideally I'd like mixed at primary and single sex at secondary.

Not the one with ridiculous academic expectations - I think there is far too much pressure on children now and most of all I want mine to enjoy school. I'd go for the one that you feel most comfortable with which sounds like option 2. Who cares if some girls go somewhere else at 7? What do you mean 'aiming too low' for you dd's academic future - academia is not the be all and end all - I'd go with the school you feel happiest with as it sounds like your dd will do well at any of them. The negligible differences in academic achievement will probably have no effect on your individual child.

Also you can get to school 2 without driving (at least in summer!). Sounds the best option to me!

binkie Fri 18-Feb-05 13:10:33

Which assessment did she enjoy most?

Issymum Fri 18-Feb-05 13:12:52

Earlybird: Wow! Great to have the options. A couple of questions - you've given us lots of information about the schools but not much about DD? Is she a child that responds well to pressure by raising her game and enjoying it or is it likely to make her diffident or unhappy? IS she likely to be sensitive to the difference in her circumstances compared to the poshies (that would be my DD1) or not give a damn as she is just so damn resilient(DD2)?

Another factor worth considering and thank you MotherInferior for this one - if the sh*t ever hit the fan e.g. DD is struggling academically, DD is having social problems or you have health or financial problems, which school is most likely to support both of you?

BTW, my choice would be School 2. There's plenty of time later to be an academic superstar, but only one crack at a happy, unpressured childhood.

Gobbledigook Fri 18-Feb-05 13:15:03

Issymum - your last point is what I was trying to say but much better put!

givenupforlent Fri 18-Feb-05 13:15:37

Id go for school 2 as well. You need to choose a school to suit your dd (and yourselves) so if she isnt gregarious I would avoid school 1, if you are not utterly stinking rich I would avoid school 3. School 2 sounds nice and if your child is still only 4 then how do you know you're aiming too low?

Anchovy Fri 18-Feb-05 13:25:58

If its any help, we are in a similar'ish situation (it wouldn't surprise me if your choice 3 is one on the ones we are thinking of). State schools ropey in our area, quite a lot of different private schools. 2 children a DS and DD

We went for the following guidelines:

1. What did we want and what suited us? I think when you are being asked to invest quite a lot in a school (in every sense!) it is important that you can go along with it. So I think parents wants and feelings are as important as what we think it will do for the children.

2. Close to where we live, so DCs can walk there (not alone, obviously!) and have friends who live reasonably close by. I really don't want to turn into a stressed all the time in the car type. DH and I both work full time and if the school is near we have a much greater chance of doing the odd drop-off and pick up etc.

3. Have bee in my bonnet about selection at 3/4. If your school 3 is the one I am thinking about they have a reputation for weeding out underacheivers along the way, so no guarantee will go all the way to 18. Also, do you actually want to go all the way through from 4-18 at the same school? Feels a bit claustrophobic to me.

4. Also, once you are on the academic hothouse treadmill I think it is quite hard to get off - although it is easy to climb onto it at a later stage. DD could go to your school 3 type at 7 or 9 or 11 I think.

5. Have no idea whether DCs are bright or otherwise - we are going for a lively, broad-based school so they have lots of opportunities to find out what they are good at. Who knows, they may not be academic but (please, God) could be future premiership footballers or Pop Idol winners.

6. The one we liked had quite a few male teachers which I think is helpful - particularly for boys or single parents.

7. The overall feel of the school and their approach to things. Several of the very pushy school we looked at had lots of after school clubs. The school we liked had a few but the head said that it was much better that rather than replicating school relationships the children did Brownies or football or whatever after school in different plaecs with different people to start setting up their own relationships with other children and adults.

8. Accept there is probably no right or wrong decision!

Earlybird Fri 18-Feb-05 13:45:57

marialuisa - know what you mean about the heliport situation. Perhaps my chip on the shoulder comes from my own experience at a girl's school. To give one example - the parking lot was filled with new Mercedes, BMWs, and even a Ferrari - that belonged to the students! And here I came in my second hand Volkswagon....which was perfectly fine, but not a prestige car by anyone's standards! I didn't feel inadequate, but simply felt I didn't fit in.

Gobbledigook - I guess I mean by aiming "too low", by choosing school 2, would I be putting her on a track where she won't get the basics in the same way, and then won't be able to do as well later? At 4 it is impossible to tell if she's got what it takes to be an academic star - or any other kind of star (musical, athletic, etc), and I want her to enjoy being a child anyway!

binkie - hard to tell which assessment she liked better...they were all so different! School 1 had her alone with 3 other children for an hour (and she was bright and bouncy upon return), school 2 spoke to her on her own with a teacher for 30 minutes while I sat in the same room talking to the headmistress (also very happy upon completion. School 3 had her alone with 3 other children for 3.5 hours! She seemed happy after all assessments, though a bit more subdued after #3 because she was tired, I think.

Issymum - yep, I'm a bit in shock to have such a good dilemma, but the pressure is now on me to choose! About an only child, she is accustomed to lots of one on one attention from adults. She can achieve alot and learns well, but needs/wants interaction and encouragement. I don't think she'd do well in a highly pressurised environment where she was expected to work independently, though she's capable of doing as well as most of her peers. Interestingly, the children who are "ahead" of her either have very pushy parents (read my post about the mum who sends her dd for timeout when she gets her letterwork wrong!), or who have elder siblings who they imitate/try to keep up with. Don't know if she'll be susceptible to peer pressure from the poshies - she doesn't seem to notice/care that our perfectly nice 2 bed flat is smaller than where most of her friends live. But, I don't think her friends notice that yet themselves...that will come later, and hopefully it won't matter to anyone.

I appreciate your comment about how there's plenty of time to do well academically. The system really does make you feel that you alone hold your child's future in your hands and you alone can f** it up! Interesting point to consider from MotherInferior. Will have to give that some thought.

binkie Fri 18-Feb-05 16:03:40

Still thinking about this. Would it work to sift out what, for you, is an "issue" from what is simply a "feature", and score each school separately?

Thus, to bore you senseless but explain what I mean: analysis of our situation with dd's school (which suits her down to the ground, though [different story] not so much ds) - she's 4, in "pre-"reception:

1. Location: it's not local - it's two stops down the Tube plus walk at each end. Simply not a problem at all - we love our Tube trips & distance doesn't hamper playdates, just makes them a bit more carefully organised - which is fine with little ones anyway. So "feature", not "issue" - see what I mean?

2. Social: boys & girls together. The idea of a "mixed" school where they're taught separately would put me off - did their rationale for that make sense to you? Dd's school is very mixed racially/nationally, but not very mixed social-class-wise - ie generally on the posh end. Poshness isn't a problem, but actually only because it's offset by the cosmopolitan-ness - would be a big problem if I felt there was a particular social mould you had to fit. (So, social things are an "issue" for me.)

3. Academics & teaching style: it's non-selective, and as above very very international - lots of non-English-first-language. What matters is the teaching and the attitude: staff are used to each child being a bit different, and treat accordingly, with lots of support - dd has class teacher and two assistants (16 children in class). Dd's special treatment (eg) is to be allowed to follow the year ahead's reading schedule (v quietly & with no fuss or special praise).

4. Extras to academics (art, music, sport, etc.): lots, jolly nice, would hugely miss if not there, but not anything like as important as the social and general academic side.

5. Other schools, moving on, etc. etc.: because of the internationalness, there is a bit of transience, and yes, clever ones do sometimes move on out. But if you're bright and happy and well-looked-after you will learn and your potential won't slip.

6. Relations with parents etc.: small, headmistress knows everyone, parents very involved. HM also owns the school, which for some people would be a huge no-no, but for me is not an issue when set against the teaching, the mix of children, etc.

7. History & reputation generally: this is where there are some concerns - school suits dd, who's not a complicated person, perfectly; but I probably will be moving more complex ds to somewhere more established, with a bit more experience in his kind of abilities.

janeybops Fri 18-Feb-05 16:22:26

when you say the local state schools are crap. what is it that you don't like about them? perhaps if you think of it from that angle it may help.

tallulah Sat 19-Feb-05 09:42:46

You haven't mentioned the Headteachers. IME they make the school. When DS2 changed schools in Y3 the Head was lovely. He stood by the front door of the school every morning & spoke to every child. He was available immediately- even when busy- if you had a problem, and he was very approachable & caring.

His replacement in Y6 (he retired) had his own kids at the school. He was always too busy to see you & gave off the attitude that he just couldn't be bothered. If you weren't "into" sport you were nobody.

Find out how long each of the Heads has been in post & think about having to go & see them with a problem, whether it is problems your DD has with a teacher, or problems like you can't pick her up in an emergency. How would each of these 3 Heads treat you.

2 of my kids went to schools like your school 1 & thrived. Having local friends isn't the be all & end all.

foxinsocks Sat 19-Feb-05 10:02:27

earlybird, if you are urging towards no.2 school, I would do some serious checking up on what happens at 7. We have a school like that round here and at 7/8 there is a mass exodus to another prep school where it is felt the children have a better chance of getting into the good private secondary schools.

What happens is that it leaves the classes totally unbalanced (and I don't necessarily mean only academically). Just check how many do actually leave at 7 and if it's a large number then add that into your factors to consider!

foxinsocks Sat 19-Feb-05 10:04:02

and I think tallulah is right (although heads do change) - I really think they make or break a school, a good headmaster/mistress.

Rarrie Sat 19-Feb-05 14:15:04

Haven't had time to read everyone else's reply yet, but certainly another vote for number 2. I think the child is too young to really worry about hothousing - they'd be better off (imo) if teh child enjoys learning and is happy at school - that is more likely to your child succeeding than being forced to. By the sounds of what you write, if there is less acadmeic pressure at school 2, and more emphasis on the pastoral side, I think that would make for a happier child (and therefore a more efficient learner). You could always swap schools when she gets older?

Earlybird Mon 21-Feb-05 15:03:39

Hi to you all. Sorry to take such a long time to reply, but was away from the computer this weekend. Also, wanted to give some thought to your suggestions as there is quite alot to absorb/contemplate.

You all are giving me extremely valid ways of evaluating a school (how do they treat each child, what would happen if we had a life crisis, etc), but these are things that are almost impossible to know as an outsider. My brief exposure to the heads at each school was during a facility tour (with a dozen or more other parents), so there was no way to chat informally.

As I said before, these schools are oversubscribed so it follows that there are many more parents touring a facility than available spaces for children. Each school had "tour times" set aside, and you call and book onto a pre-arranged tour. The general format is that the head gives an opening or ending speech (sometimes both), and then we were escorted around the building. It's a bit of an assembly line approach, and I understand why it has to be that way. Clearly these heads have seen it/done it many times before, and their answers had a "rehearsed" feel to them. Also, none of the answers were in depth - there was a bit of the bright and breezy, get it over with feeling. There was no chance for informal chitchat, and I understand it because they physically can't spend an hour one on one with each prospective family - especially if they are saying generally the same things.

Also, it can be initimidating as a parent to ask questions when you're in a room full of strangers. It seems everyone stares at you, and it's hard to know if they all think it's a valid question, or completely daft.

It's also difficult to ascertain the "feel" of a school and to get a sense of their philosophy as implemented day to day - those are nebulous things, and often aren't apparent in a brief/carefully orchestrated walk around. I've found myself studying the prospectus brochures to try to glean a bit more of each school's philosophy - but also know that they were probably put together by a PR firm!

I will say that school #3 seemed to have little interest in the parents. For the tour, we were met at the door by the headmistress who briefly introduced herself and then immediately sent us in small groups to tour the school with 9 year old students as our guides! While it was nice to speak to students, (and they were very composed girls), their ability to answer questions of substance was limited. The only chance to chat was at the end when all the parents were stood around in the lobby (near the front door!), while the headmistress answered a few questions. Then during the assessment, we were instructed to drop our dds off at the front office, and to collect them there again 3.5 hours later. On the one hand, you could state that this school is clearly focused on the children (rather than adult social interaction), but there was no opportunity for casual conversation/interaction.

Binkie - thanks for the useful/thoughtful way of approaching this. Your issue vs. feature suggestion has certainly caused me to look at this differently.

Anchovy - who knows, we may actually be considering the same school #3. I don't want dd to be "weeded out" if she isn't able to keep up the pace. Want her to feel confident and supported in what she is able to achieve, and while I want her to be challenged, I don't want her to struggle. Completely agree about a lively broadbased school being a good base to start from. Thanks for your thoughts.

tallulah - The heads have been in place at each of these schools for a long time, and certainly give the impression that they're not going anywhere. Certainly none look retirement age. So, I don't think there will be much chance of the personality of any of the schools altering significantly.

foxinsocks - you raise a good point about exactly how many of the children leave at 7 to go to other schools. Would a school feel offended if that question is asked? Isn't it funny how I want to know these things (and am entitled to), but have a fear about coming across as a "troublemaker" or pain in the *ss - especially as these schools make you feel you are lucky to be "granted" a space.

Everyone was back at school this morning, and mums were comparing notes on reception choices to be made. Must be said that most mums from our nursery who have offers from school #2 are planning to accept. Anyway.....more thinking out loud from me.

foxinsocks Mon 21-Feb-05 20:45:02

yes Earlybird (re school no.2), I guess you would have to ask the school or you could ask whether they have any spaces later in the school (hint hint!).

I think it comes down to gut feel in the end. Where did you think dd would be most comfortable?

It sounds to me like you prefer no.2 and you are reassured by others taking places there, at least you would know some people who will be going there.

Personally, convenience is a big thing for me and no.2 fits that bill (I wouldn't want to have to get into the car every day to go to school). I think, in primary school, as long as they are ENJOYING school and the teaching standard is good, then they will get along fine.

Earlybird Wed 23-Feb-05 21:37:33

For those of you still awake (and interested ), the school saga continues.

I called school #3 (toughest academically, and snootiest socially) today just to enquire where dd is on their waiting list (is it #4 or #104), and got a very powerful woman on the phone asking "is our school your first choice?" I stammered that it was always one of my favourites, but that I didn't know how much of an option it really was as we were currently on the waiting list. I said I needed to make a decision regarding schools soon, and I wanted to know what the chances were of a space becoming available - that is, should I dismiss school #3 from consideration completely as we were "only" waitlisted? She efficiently/brusquely said that they were about to discuss 4 girls on the list, and dd was one. There was also a comment about "she showed that she could learn at the assessment, which is a good thing".

Anyway, we came back this evening to find a voicemail from the school with a verbal offer of a place, with letter to follow tomorrow. I'm chuffed, but they want an answer by Friday! As I said before, I really don't think we're interested in the school, but I thought I owed it to myself/dd to find out where we were on the list as it's such a sought after school.

Anyone have any thoughts?

And final question - am I expected to formally (in writing) respond to the offers, and if so, would appreciate any suggestions about how to word letters to the schools where dd won't be going. Want to be gracious, and somehow keep the door open in case things don't work out at school #2. Thanks.

Earlybird Fri 25-Feb-05 17:22:11

Thought I'd pop back and tell you the final resolution. I chose school #2 - and feel so relieved to have made the decision. It feels the right place for dd and me. I read and re-read the thread quite a few times as I thought it through. Thanks very much for all your thoughts/suggestions. You helped me immensely.

Anteater Sat 26-Feb-05 01:14:53

How many pupils in each school?

ScummyMummy Sat 26-Feb-05 01:41:22

Hope she'll be very happy there, earlybird.

foxinsocks Sat 26-Feb-05 08:16:21

well done you (for making a decision!). It sounds like a lovely school and it's always nice to know a few people who are going to be there.

pipsy1 Sat 26-Feb-05 09:11:39

How can I child be assessed at age 4? I don't understand sorry

Earlybird Sat 26-Feb-05 09:29:19

foxinsocks and scummymummy - thanks for your good wishes.

Anteater - school #1 has about 500 students total from age 4-11.
school #2 has around 300 students from age 4-11.
school #3 has 170 students, all girls.

pipsy1 - on order to get an offer of a place at a private school, most require prospective students to meet with teachers to be "assessed". Typically, the children are asked to do various things so that the teaching staff can observe them. DD was asked to draw a picture, write her name, identify some numbers/letters, cut out a picture, do some matching games, listen to a story and then answer questions about it, etc. Students are also observed for how well they follow direction, how they interact with others, if they follow direction etc. That is how the system is set up to "evaluate" potential students.

Anteater Sat 26-Feb-05 10:46:18

I would opt for school2. I think its sounds lovely, we have to pay for a similar product!
You always have an option to move your child into the independant sector at a later stage if things are not going to plan.

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