Parental guilt: school choice

Ah, the new year cometh, Christmas will speed past, and the daffodils will poke their way through, waiting for the snowdrops to overtake them speedily into bloom.

Oh and the dawning realisation that the primary school application has to be in.

I know it’s not the same across the country, but here in Kent, the primary admissions are controlled centrally by the County Council. This means that pupils and parents apply for their place at primary school through a system designed to remove any favours, bias, or nepotism.

The systems works by identifying your top 3 choices for primary school. You have the opportunity to organise your own visits in advance, scope out the correct learning environment for your little angel, and then confidently state that “yes. These are my choices… let it be”.

Or not.

You see each school, although not in charge of it’s own admissions, does get to set it’s own admissions policy. These basically set out their criteria for entry, or more specifically, they state the order/priority at which pupils should be considered.

For example, school A may state ‘siblings first’. This is a common and (in my opinion) very important criteria as it would help/allow your child to attend the school if they have a sibling already at the school. Very useful for ensuring the school run doesn’t double your commute, or angel 1 and angel 2 aren’t at schools on opposite sides of the county.

Another criteria is likely to be distance. The distance of your residence to the school, as the crow flies. This doesn’t mean that there is a catchment like the old days, it means that any child living closer to the school than you will be given a higher priority.

Religion can and still is a criteria for some schools, and special educational needs ranks high for most schools – if your child has specific needs and the school can offer to meet these needs, then you should be considered more favourably, or at least it should help you tick another box towards getting that place.

So all quite straight forward you might think? Well no, not exactly, see you rank your choices, so your application is judged against your first-choice-school’s criteria along with all the other pupils who ranked that school first. Once all the pupils who selected that school first have been allocated a place, if the school has places left then they will look at the pupils who ranked them as second choice, who haven’t been accepted by their first choice school. (note, it’s done centrally, it’s not actually the school making the decision).

And so, on, down the parent/pupil’s choices against the varied criteria of myriad schools. To be honest it’s a nightmare for the parents, but equally I’d have hated to be the computer programmer who designed the algorithm to assign the places! Actually, i’d probably hate more to be the person who answers the phone to angry parents who didn’t get any of the three places they selected.

So as you can see, there is a system to this Kent admissions process, and only by understanding the system can you find ways to advantage yourself as best you can in a system designed to remove all advantages. So, what’s the strategy?

Each school has to publish their admissions policy. They also mostly publish how that policy/criteria was met in the previous academic year’s intake. So the school will tell you that they had 100 places available, sibling priority was first, of which 60 places were taken. If you ask the school, they should have a fair idea of whether they expect a similar number of siblings the following year, or you can look at local birth rates and see if there was a surge or a dip the year of your child’s birth which may/may not affect the sibling intake rate.

If your child does not have a sibling at the school already, then you would have a 40% chance of a place (assuming you set them as first choice, and you live an equal distance to every other applicant from the school).

Next up is distance. You live 1.2 miles form the school. Last year the furthest applicant lived 0.7 miles from the school. Quite frankly you don’t have a very high chance of securing one of those remaining 40 places. Unless a housing estate that borders the school has been knocked down and replaced with wide open fields. Unlikely. So in this case, if you selected this school as one of your choices – it’s a wasted vote. You are so unlikely to get a place that what you are actually doing is making your second choice the first choice to actually get considered… and because you ranked it second, you will be considered after all the children who ranked that school B as their first choice. Enjoying the game?

Take some time to look through the previous admissions reports and understand where you have a realistic chance of applying. It may not always be the closest school, or the one you would want to choose, but by understanding where you have a realistic chance of securing a place means that you can apply intelligently for a possible school that you actually like/prefer over a choice of school that some computer in County Hall chooses for you.

For our daughter, the nearest school was not one we would want. The next one was outstanding and would obviously be your first choice execpt we had no chance of getting in (yep, that’s the 0.7 mile example above, but with an intake of about 25). So we ended up viewing a number of schools within a 12 mile radius. It sounds a long way, but with a 60 mile commute everyday a lot of them are actually on route and wouldn’t be too far off the current beaten path.

The result was we identified 3 fantastic school, each with their own merits. Our first and second choice were 8 miles and 12 miles away respectively and were both rural primary schools outside of the town where we live. They both had an intake of only 15 pupils, which sounds like a restriction on your chances, but the reports from the previous year’s intakes said they didn’t actually manage to fill all their places, and on talking to the schools they were both expecting a dip in sibling applications too.

Our third choice school was a town school, based about a mile and a half away and the other end of town. It was much much bigger, with an intake of around 100 and would offer a very different environment for our little angel – a multi-cultural, busy, active school with an opportunity to be a fish in a very large pond. The school had a wonderful atmosphere to it, one of excitement and opportunity, but we felt it lacked the one-to-one attention that you could benefit from in a school where the class size was 15-20.

In the end you have to make a decision. Select your schools and rank your choices. It’s a choice which may or may not have long-term implications for your child. A child’s personality and education comes from parents, teachers, peers, and the environment around them. How much of an impact this little box filling exercise has over their life is probably impossible to know.

But it doesn’t stop the pressure on the parents to make those choices correctly and to play the system as much as they can. Choose wisely, and realise that the guilt is self-imposed. Your child will have a number of factors throughout their life which will have a greater impact on their outcome.

Now you just have to wait for the email/letter announcing your fate. Good luck!


Adam is the Publisher of Copse Magazine and owner of Sailfin. He spends his time hosting and making websites for other people, copywriting, and publishing white label content for other companies alongside Copse Magazine, his creative outlet. He has two children and lives in Kent in the South East of the UK.