Secondary school choices: A parental anecdote of the view from the ground

 

I’m a simple country lad. I grew up in a rural Welsh county called Ceredigion. During my formative years, I attended a Welsh-speaking primary school, and at the age of 10, was presented with a simple enough choice: whether I wanted my forthcoming secondary education to be taught in English or Welsh. A preference for the latter could be realised by my choosing of the local Welshspeaking comprehensive, otherwise I could opt for the English-speaking alternative. This ‘selection by ability to speak Welsh’ is, no doubt, one of the lesser known forms of selection that exists in our secondary school system.

 

Fast-forwarding a couple of decades, I now find myself, as a parent of two young children, immersed in the hotchpotch of school choices that exists in the south of England. I first waded into this mess, with a sense of rather dismayed naivety, when I got my first job in the City of London.

 

I regularly listened in to heated discussions between staff with children regarding the merits of different schools (private, comprehensive, or grammar) and the best catchments to be targeted when purchasing a house. I still harboured that naivety, born from my own simple experience of rural comprehensivisation, when deciding where to purchase our own family house. Disregarding schools entirely and focussing solely on house prices, I and my wife explored progressively further east along our principal commuting line, that joining Liverpool street station with Shenfield, until we could afford a modestly sized semi-detached house. This strategy landed us in the 1930s suburban tracts of Harold Wood within the London Borough of Havering.

 

Within a practicable travelling distance of my house, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. Instead of being concerned with why that is so or the complex array of factors that influence a school’s quality, let us focus on the parental choices drawn out by such a situation: all else been equal, the rational parent will always want to choose the ‘best’ school for their child.

 

The starter on the course to our children’s education lies within half a kilometre of my front doorstep: a reasonably good comprehensive school called Redden Court. In the case of an oversubscribed intake, there are no significant acceptance criteria other than the distance of a parent’s house to the school gate. However, there is no sixth form and, although academic performance is currently above average, the historic performance leaves a rather unsavoury aftertaste on my estimation of the school.

 

Next up to the plate, within a kilometre of our house, there is a significantly better school - The Campion. Given that we are within geographical catchment of both schools, I would clearly prefer this school. There’s a snag however: the Campion is a Jesuit school, and has a religious prerequisite in its admissions criteria of essentially demonstrating that you practice the Catholic faith. If the intake is oversubscribed on this basis (which it always is), selection takes place once again according to distance (to the school’s chapel in this instance). As we hold the Church in some esteem, despite not being particularly religious ourselves, I would rather not resort to unscrupulous measures to get my children enrolled.

 

The real à la carte schools on Havering’s menu of education lie slightly further afield, in Upminster, where there are two excellent single-sex schools that almost rival the performance of an English grammar school. Once again, however, both schools have a religious prerequisite. The girl’s school is Catholic; the boy’s school encompasses a number of Christian denominations. Oversubscription on the bases of these criteria is resolved, as always, by distance. The boy’s school also has a specialism in sport and music giving the ‘comprehensive’ an allowance to select 10% of it’s intake on the basis of a prospective pupil’s aptitude in these areas, but it is hopelessly oversubscribed in this respect. Being almost 5km from my house, both of these highly desirable schools are out of my reach, unless I pay a sizeable premium to move into the area (Upminster is expensive), and unscrupulously attend church for a couple of years.

 

Finally, we have the sweet-tasting prospect of attendance at one of the academically selective grammar schools of Essex or Southend. Although we don’t reside within their stated catchment areas, they are commutable and around 20% of their places are drawn from outside. Unfortunately, competition in the 11+ is demonic, and these schools have become hyper-selective as a result. Parental pride would like me to believe that my children could potentially aspire to upper quartile levels of attainment, but it can’t quite stretch to a realistic probability of them attaining the upper percentile levels of performance required by these schools (sorry, kids – I sincerely hope you prove your father wrong). 

 

Perhaps, my perceived state of educational privation could be alleviated by relocating to another local authority. Southend has a tantalising secondary school system in place. Its grammars were largely untouched by the egalitarian convulsions of the school system that began in the 1960s. About a quarter of secondary school pupils in Southend attend a grammar school; that was pretty much the proportion envisaged as ‘optimal’ under the tri-partite design that arose from the 1944 Education Act. 

 

Moving to Southend could be an option then. However, the issue then arises as to which school my children would attend in the event that they didn’t pass the 11+. A quick sortie into this problem was undertaken by locating a property with a similar specification to my existing home that could be exchanged on a cost-neutral basis. I found myself stuck in the same mess. Failing entrance to the grammars, the nearest school was a very good Academy - The Eastwood. Unfortunately, this school adopted the absurd measure of settling oversubscription with a ballot: to obtain a place, I would essentially have to win it in a raffle. Next, there was the St Thomas More: Catholic. Then the Chase High School: deplorable performance statistics …

 

Alas, if only it was all so simple as whether or not you spoke Welsh.

 

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