The politics of choosing a school

Choosing a childrens school


Choosing schools has once again hit the headlines with a debate raging on whether parents who “cheat” to get their children into the school of their choice should face tougher sanctions. Workingmums looks at some of the issues.

It’s that time of year again. Parents trying to get their child into the primary school of their choice will be finishing off their application forms and hoping they have made the right choice. Those applying for secondary schools will mainly be crossing their fingers and hoping they have got their first choice.

The whole issue of school admissions has become highly political in recent years with the advent of league tables, recent policy changes and increasing hysteria around the whole issue of what makes for a good parent. Some parents stress out over whether, if they send their child to a local school with a below average league table score, they will be dooming them to a life of underachievement. Others worry that they are putting too much pressure on their children at an early age to do well at exams.

Contradictory information

Research and media coverage is often contradictory. While the headlines focus on failing schools, middle class flight from urban schools, gangs, classroom havoc and bullying, other research suggests that it is the issues are much more complex. Research by Professor Diane Reay at Cambridge, for instance, shows that white middle class children who go to badly performing urban comprehensives suffer no academic disadvantage.

Certainly, the evidence from reports shows that children worry about exams from an early age. The Cambridge Primary Review, the biggest review into primary education for a generation, has recommended that Sats for 11 year olds in English and Maths be scrapped. It says the current focus on passing exams and hitting targets at a young age was “even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools” and that the narrow focus of the exams and a culture of “teaching to the test” mean it is impossible to substantiate Government claims of rising school standards in England.

This week a poll of over 120 parents conducted by the education and parenting website shows around 7 in 10 parents of primary school aged children would support a teachers’ boycott of all work to do with Sats for 11 year olds. The findings come in the wake of the news this week that the two leading teaching unions, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) are commencing plans to consult their members over a boycott of the controversial tests next May.

Amy Schofield, editor of, said of the findings and of the petition: “This proves that many parents would strongly back a teachers’ boycott of all work to do with Sats, showing that the majority doubtless believe that these controversial tests should be scrapped.”


Recently, the focus has been around parents who “cheat” to get their children into the school they think is best for them, for instance, parents who move house temporarily to get into the right catchment area for the school of their choice. The chief schools adjudicator issued a report earlier this week which recommended tougher sanctions are taken to deter parents from lying and cheating in order to win a school place. The report has stirred up a hornet’s nest, with some arguing that parents only do this because they are so worried about doing what they think is best for their children and that the onus should be on the authorities to improve school standards across the board.

For parents the whole issue is a minefield. No parent wants to think they are not doing the best for their child, but the important thing is to consider your child as an individual. Not all children are going to thrive in a highly competitive academic environment, for instance. Plus what about your own considerations in terms of getting them to school and having a support network of parents in the area?

So what should you look for when you are thinking about applying to a school? The considerations will obviously be different for primary and secondary schools, but maybe not as different as you think. Firstly, you need to check the admissions criteria to check your child qualifies. There may be catchment area considerations, for instance. Certainly it is important to visit schools before you make a choice and remember you will need to list more than one school, especially if your first choice is very popular. Talk to the teachers, get a feel for what the school is trying to achieve.

If at all possible, talk to the head teacher – a school’s head teacher can make all the difference. A good leader will be totally on top of what the school is trying to achieve, will motivate and support staff and will be on top of the major issues at the school. Check out things like the school’s policy on bullying. If your child enjoys a particular subject and there are secondary schools in your area that specialise in it find out more about how they approach it.

Talk to other parents – they will know the inside information, but beware that you get a good sample as some parents might have had one bad experience which will colour how they view the school.

Check the Ofsted report, but remember that this is not everything. Often, if a school has been deemed to be failing, for instance, this will result in a series of special measures which could turn the school around. Sometimes a new head teacher is brought in, extra resources are thrown at the school, and a failing school can be transformed in a few years.

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