Am I ready for school?

We’re taking the girls to meet their Reception teachers tomorrow, as we missed the proper welcome tea party and parents evening last week. The one week of the year we go on holiday…

I have filled out the school forms (endless paperwork and I had to do two sets of course) and Dh has double-checked them. The school sent through two welcome packs last week which included the various blank forms, information about the Early Years Foundation Stage, letters from older children to R and G welcoming them to the school (one of them told R not to be scared and I started crying as i read it out to her) and a booklet of self-portraits by all of the girls’ new classmates (as they’re in separate classes we now know the names of every child in the Reception year), which made me fret approximately 98% less than I had been as the girls can actually write their names and some of their classmates can’t. Naturally, there are some that have better handwriting than me, so you can’t have everything.

The girls and I went to the school fete a couple of weeks ago and picked up some second-hand school uniform. The school colours are yellow and blue, so R is going to wear yellow tops, gingham summer dresses and sweatshirts and G is going to wear the corresponding items in blue. In Winter they’ll swap the summer dresses for grey pinafore dresses. The PE kit is non-branded and consists of white tops and dark shorts or jogging bottoms.

The girls are very excited about meeting their teachers tomorrow. As Dh and I are both on leave until next week, we’re both able to attend. I’m really pleased as we’ll be sharing the pick ups and drop offs as we do now. Dh is keen on becoming a parent helper and reading with the children, so he’s going to ask about doing that. I think he’d be great as he’s extremely patient (let’s face it, in this house he has to be) and it’ll be good for the boys to have a man helping them with their reading as often it’s the mums that go in.

After-school club is sorted, for this year at least. I have already filled in forms to get the logoed bits of the school uniform and will be raiding M&S for the other clothing. Dh and I have bashed diaries and are able to juggle the staggered start dates and finish dates for the first two weeks of term between us (lots of people are complaining about this. I have lost count of the number of times someone has said ‘Just chuck ’em in!!’. It’s certainly a pain in the arse for us working parents.)

The girls are ready. Dh is fine about it all. Me? I feel oddly bereft already and they don’t start until September. That’s the thing with this one-shot parenting lark – once the girls are at school that’s it. They don’t have younger siblings to follow in their footsteps.

So, one phase of the girls’ life is ending and another one is about to begin. I think I’m scared because I didn’t have the easiest time at school. Some of it was of my own making, some of it was just…horrible and even now, 20-odd years later I find it hard to revisit. I can’t bear the thought of R or G going through some of the things that I did. They are their own people of course and they are a million times more confident than I was at their age. It’s that twin thing again…it seems to protect them from certain things but may yet cause other issues. They have also been at nursery since they were 5 months old, so they’re used to interacting and socialising with children of their own age. They won’t be daunted by the other children.

We don’t quite know what the next months and years will bring, but from September life is going to get that little bit more different again.

I hate it when I’m wrong

Reader, I am an enormous arse. I also HATE being wrong.

It is not the end of the world that the girls are going to be in the same class. In fact, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise:

1. Their Reception class teacher is, apparently, amazing and the parents in the other class would kill for their children to be in her class
2. The other children from nursery are in the other class. If we insisted on a split now, we would upset whichever twin was in the other class, by leaving them on their own.

I’d still like to understand the rationale behind the school’s decision keep the girls together when they had been specifically told that they were to be split up. If they’d contacted us beforehand to say that they appreciated our views but wanted to put the girls in the same class for X, Y and Z reasons, I would have understood. It was a shock to find out that our views had been completely ignored, with no explanation.

As it turns out, I’m one of the few people that thought splitting the girls was an absolute necessity. So many people have commented that it would be a shame to split them, that it wouldn’t feel right, that they work well as a team, that they both rely on each in different ways, that they are individuals with different personalities and approaches to life and won’t get mixed up after the inevitable initial confusion.

I sat the girls down individually on Friday and asked them what they thought. They both said, without prompting from the other, that they would rather be in the same class as each other than be with their friends. I can’t argue with that.

Dh is going to speak to the school tomorrow. I wasn’t exactly rational when I spoke to them on Friday so hopefully he’ll make more sense than I did!

School prep.

Time is really flying by. 3 months and 5 days until R and G start school. They had a visit at nursery (sorry, Big Stars as G now insists that we call it as she’s too GROWN UP to be at nursery now) from the school liaison lady last week. She asked the girls (and a couple of their classmates that will be attending the same school) to write their names, draw a picture of themselves (R refused to draw a nose on her self-portrait so G leaned over and did it for her, which will have told the school all they need to know about the dynamic here) and tell her what they liked doing. In July we’ll attend a tea party for the new Reception classes, where they’ll meet their classmates and be given a booklet with all of the other children’s pictures and information in. It all sounds rather lovely. I’m really impressed.

We have also sorted out After-School club for the girls. Their school doesn’t offer it to the Reception class, but they have a private day nursery on-site that offers ‘wraparound care’ for their age group. Inevitably it’s expensive (and of course for two children the cost doubles) but at least it’s guaranteed for a year and is only required during term-time. Luckily the nature of Dh’s shifts and my flexible working patterns (I thank my lucky stars every day that I work for an extremely family-friendly organisation) means that we don’t require breakfast club as well, which would really push the cost up. The girls are already on the waiting list for the ‘proper’ after school club which they can start from Year 1, although I have heard horror stories of a ridiculously small amount of places and an enormous waiting list but I’m not going to worry about that until I need to.

The girls are just so ready for school now. Prior to Easter I noticed a subtle shift in their attitude towards nursery (sorry BIG STARS) and they’re now talking about going to school, the people they’ll meet, the things they’ll learn, the uniform, etc.

I think Dh and I are also ready. It’s going to be a big change for us, too. We’re used to the girls going to nursery three days a week, me working at home the other two days and a potential 51 weeks a year of childcare. I have already planned my annual leave for the latter half of this year and the beginning of next, to coincide with the Christmas break and the start of Easter. I’m going to work at home during the half-term weeks. Hopefully Dh and I can manage the six week break next Summer between us. It’s not ideal, but we’re used to juggling and it’s a bit like levelling up on a computer game: we’ve had it relatively easy, childcare wise for the last four years. Now it gets a bit tricker.

Primary school offer day 2012

13.20pm. I submitted the girls’ eApplications back in October and today, sometime after 5pm, we find out which primary school they will attend in September. Before we started this process I thought I wouldn’t be too bothered about which primary school they went to. I’ve always had half an eye on the choices (or possible lack of) they’ll have to make when the move up to secondary school. However, with a number of the friends starting prep school last September (and already appearing to be way ahead of R and G both educationally and emotionally) and the horror stories about a shortfall of places in the area last year, coupled with all those bloody people that have said ‘What will you do if they end up getting in to different schools?’ means I’ve been like this for the last few months weeks.

We applied to three schools:

1. Uber School, 800 metres away (as the crow flies), massively oversubscribed, last child to get in last year lived 280 metres away. Not getting in there, then.

2. Good School, which recently got an Outstanding OFSTED report, 100 metres away. This is the one that Dh really, really likes. If he’d done the application he would have put this one first. He didn’t, so I stupidly put Uber school first

3. The Other School, currently graded by Ofsted as Satisfactory but rapidly improving, 300 metres away. I know lots of alternative parents that have chosen to send their children there over Good School and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the girls went there, but I’m not sure it’s really me us right for the girls

I’ll be back here later with the results….

17.35pm As predicted, the girls (both) got into school no.2, so Dh looks a bit like this. I’m chuffed too, but it’s going to be a logistical nightmare as they don’t offer an after-school provision to under 6’s so we’re going to have to look at alternatives.

The deed is done…

“Online applications submitted before the portal closes on 15 January 2012 will be considered as being on time.  You will be advised of the outcome of your application by email on 18 April 2012.  We will not contact you before this date unless we require additional information”.

I have completed the eAdmissions forms for the girls (one each, of course) and now we must wait. Despite having the option to apply for six schools, I chose to put the three we’ve visited.

I put:

1. Uber school that we don’t live near enough to, but it’s worth a punt

2. Good school that we both really liked and is on the doorstep so should be the school we get

3. Fine school that we saw today that would be ok if the other two didn’t work out

Yes, I changed my mind and reversed our preferences for Uber and Good schools. So shoot me. I put a note on each of the forms stating that R was the twin sister of G (and vice versa), quoting their unique application numbers – I did G’s form first, then did R’s form quoting G’s number and edited G’s form to include R’s number) and that they must attend the same school. We want them to be in separate classes (G isn’t fussed, R wants be to with her sister), but we don’t have to worry about that until they have school places.

We’ve done all we can. Now the waiting begins.

The ‘other’ school

we had to take the girls with us. G is generally more accepting of things and masked her slight confusion with a winning smile. R was NOT HAPPY. R isn’t terribly good at hiding how she’s feeling about something (can’t imagine where she gets it from) and she let us and everyone else know how cross she was. She wasn’t openly naughty or rude, but she had, as Dh says ‘A right cob on’ and she refused to crack even the merest hit of a smile when the Head Teacher said hello to her. I thought she might relax a bit when we went into one of the reception classes and spotted one of the old Big Stars from nursery, but she buried her head in Dh’s chest and refused to engage with the process.

The school was…fine. I kind-of wished I hadn’t read the Ofsted report before we looked round but I could see why they had rated it as Satisfactory. It’s now seen as an ‘improving’ school and I suspect that in 3 or 4 years’ time when the new buildings open (it’s currently housed in a series of 1950s prefabs) it will become a good or very good school. Dh commented that the school looked ‘shabby’ and said that he felt shallow for thinking it. On one level it is shallow to judge an institution like that, but it all helps to form an opinion and is therefore valid.

The Head Teacher was probably the nicest of the three we’ve met. She was happy to answer questions on not only her school, but the whole primary schools admissions process as she had recently been through it herself. The school focuses much less on the academic/results side of things than the other two schools we’ve seen (although literacy and numeracy are, of course, central) and is very community-driven. I had heard from another parent that this school is seen as the choice for families that are not so driven by testing and results and is more ‘arty’ and ‘rounded’ – there was lots of chatter about ‘the whole person’, for example.

This September it went from a one to two-form entry school and that’s one of the drivers for the new buildings (at consultation stage, so no planning permission yet). I thought it might have smaller class sizes but apparently there are 60 children (the maximum) in reception so on that basis it’s the same as the other two schools.

I can now see why other families send their children there, but (gut feeling ahoy) it wasn’t the right school for us. When we left, we asked R and G what they thought. R was still in quiet rage mode so didn’t say anything. Dh and G had the following conversation:

Dh: Did you like the sch..?

G: (interrupting) No.

Dh: What about the…?

G: NO.

So there you have it. It’s the third choice school. Now to complete the admissions forms…

Eye of the tiger

Dh and I visited the second primary school on our list this morning. It’s the closest school to us distance-wise and has an all-round Good rating from Ofsted with an Outstanding for the curriculum. It’s our default school really, so I was hoping it would be at least as good as the school we visited two weeks ago.

There were already four or five families waiting in reception when we arrived, all of whom had blatantly ignored the ‘it’s best if you don’t bring the children with you at this stage’ speech that we were given over the phone. The girls were at nursery today anyway, so it wasn’t a problem. We were soon joined by another half-dozen families (grr).

Several of the parents already knew each other, cue lots of ‘Ooh look who it is! Fancy seeing you here!’ conversations. We recognised one of the other mums from nursery who,like us hadn’t brought her pre-school daughter along but was lugging around a nearly one year old (everyone either has babies or bumps round here- it’s most disconcerting). There was lots of chatter about other schools that people had visited.It seems that some families are travelling miles to visit schools that they can’t possibly get into unless they’re sleeping with the head teacher or donating vast sums of cash.

I digress. Dh and I really REALLY liked the school. It was better than the other school in terms of ICT provision (it has its own editing suite and recording studio!) but everything else was pretty much the same. The lady showing us round (the Liaison Officer’) had trouble dealing with such a large and demanding group of pushy parents, but she smiled resiliently throughout.

I got really hacked off towards the end when we were introduced to the school’s pastoral teacher and she explained the way in which the school deals with ‘disruptive’ pupils. In a nutshell, any child with an issue – emotional, behavioural, social – can choose to spend some time in a separate classroom to talk through the problem and find ways to deal with it.This is available to ALL children in the school, regardless of age. Dh and I thought this was a lovely idea – the child with a problem was being dealt with, and their classmates could get on with their work.

Having worked with social workers for the last five years, I know that no child is naughty without a reason. It might be problems at home, emotional difficulties, problems socialising, problems keeping up with schoolwork. There’s always an underlying cause. I was impressed that the school worked so had to tackle such issues head-on and with parental agreement.

Not everyone in the group felt the same as us. One parent referred to it as ‘the naughty room’. Another talked about ‘disruptive children’. Yet another asked if the school had a high proportion of children with ‘behavioural difficulties’. It was blatantly obvious that this was not the case,but some of the parents wouldn’t let it go. They clearly saw it as a sign of a ‘problem’ school.

After several minutes of a few parents interrogating the pastoral teacher, I’d had enough. She was in the middle of dealing with a clearly upset little girl and had very kindly agreed to talk to our group for a few minutes. Reader, I ranted. ‘NO SCHOOL IS FILLED WITH PERFECTLY BEHAVED CHILDREN. NOT ONE IN THE REAL WORLD, ANYWAY. WANT A PERFECT SCHOOL? SOD OFF AND PAY FOR PRIVATE EDUCATION!!!’ I thought I was muttering under my breath but the parent next to me (seemed nice) caught my eye and started laughing. I looked back at Dh and he grinned and rolled his eyes.

I think some of the parents in the group were antsy because the school was clearly very good and they knew that they didn’t live near enough to be guaranteed a place. We live a road over from the school and it’s 3 minutes walk to the door, so I reckon we’ll be ok. Dh and I felt rather smug as we left.

This is going to be our first choice school on the application form. Uber-school is going to be second. We’re off to visit our current third choice in a couple of weeks (we have to take the girls with us for that visit but they said that was fine) and I’m not bothering to look at the fourth choice because the receptionist there was extremely rude when I phoned up to arrange a visit ‘It’s a bit early in term – phone back in a couple of weeks’. Erm, nope. All the other schools have got their act together, why haven’t you?

I felt quite tigerish for the rest of the day. I think our cubs will do well at today’s school. I might need to kick some other parents’ asses, but they may have already decided to send their perfectly behaved children to the perfect school THAT DOESN’T EXIST. NOT EVEN IN THE FEE-PAYING SECTOR.





Nurse! The screens!

It’s official. I have Primary School Admissions Fever.

Online applications opened on the 1st September in our local authority and close in January. You can choose up to six schools for your child but in practice I think most people limit their choice to two or three.  Logic dictates that the girls will go to the very nice state primary that is one street over from our house but if I’m going to be given a choice or, at least, the illusion of choice, I want to exploit it as much as I can.

Dh can’t understand the point of all this catchment area/choice business. He grew up in a village with one primary school and one secondary school. You went there because there was nowhere else. My poor Mum and Dad purposely moved into an area which was the catchment for very well-respected middle and upper schools (different system in Bedfordshire) and my sister and I both (separately) opted to go out of catchment and attend completely different schools at both stages. Kids eh?

I have identified four schools that I want to visit before completing the application forms (two children, of course, equals two completely separate forms) and we visited one of them this morning.

The school is about 10 minutes’ walk from our house and has an Ofsted rating of Outstanding. For everything. I was fascinated to see what a really excellent school was like and I dragged Dh along for the ride. I’m such a Margot that I made him dress up for the occasion in a shirt and tie. I felt slightly guilty when several other parents turned up for the tour in jeans and t-shirts. I’m a cruel wife.

Anyway, the school was fabulous and when we left I wept silent tears of rage that we don’t live on the same street as the school so would have the best chance of getting in. I have already heard tales of children that lived 180 metres(!) from the school and didn’t get in. It’s THAT good. We don’t have a hope in hell.

I’ve been trying to analyse exactly what made it so brilliant (Ofsted aside) and it was the wealth of opportunities that they gave the children and the commitment that the staff displayed to their work. The school is absolutely obsessed with reading (and literacy generally) and every classroom was filled with books. The Year 3 and 4 children (after Reception they mix the year groups up so 1 and 2 are together, etc.) are doing World War 2 this term so the classroom was decorated with propaganda posters and you had to walk through a camouflage net to enter the classroom. I had to restrain myself from sitting down and joining in with the class! Another class was learning about the solar system so their classroom was decorated with space paraphernalia. Each child is given the opportunity to play a musical instrument and there is a dedicated music teacher. There is apparently a waiting list for piano lessons. When Dh heard this I caught his eye and could see him mentally ticking off the middle class clichés in his head. They have an arts festival each May/June in which external experts are invited in to teach the children different skills. I was impressed that the Head Teacher knew the name of each child we came across. There was a real community feel to the school. It felt like a private school but with an inclusive state ethos.

In short, it was perfect. The school even managed to soften Dh’s rather cynical view of the whole process. We walked to the station ( so I could go to work) and he said, rather sadly: ‘I want to go there and learn about space stuff and play the guitar’.

The only thing that struck me as odd was the lack of uniform. I spent my entire school life wearing a uniform and it was bizarre to see school children in a learning environment wearing Converse and leggings. It reminded me of ‘Mufti’ (non-uniform) Day when I was at school, only it’s every day for them. I asked the Headmistress about it and she said it was a deliberate policy and the children really liked it.

We’re off to visit the school nearest to us in a couple of weeks. It has a Good Ofsted rating and I’m sure it’ll be great. I just got a tingly feeling when I walked round today’s  school and the other ones on our list are going to have to be bloody amazing to live up to its high standards. Putting my sensible head on, I know the girls won’t get into today’s school. There’s no harm in taking a punt though.

Education, education, education

Although the girls won’t be starting until September 2012 (it’s a single entry intake round here), our thoughts are already turning to local schools. We live in what can be described as a reasonably affluent area. Although we don’t quite have a <insert name of well-known Seattle coffee chain here> on our local parade of shops just yet (it’s surely coming), we do have the option of a number of different types of school:

1.       State primaries

2.       Prep schools

3.       Catholic schools

We can dismiss option 3 straight away. Neither of us are Catholic and the girls (and I) aren’t even christened. Plus, as a former chemistry scholar and avowed Atheist, Dh wouldn’t entertain it for even a millisecond. We’d be struck down before we even crossed the threshold on an open day. In any case, I’m not the sort of person that would pseudo-‘convert’ and go to church for a set period of time to get the girls into a school and then abandon the whole idea the moment they put the uniform on.

I had a really interesting conversation with someone at work a while back who argued that I’d already entered the private school system by sending the girls to a fee-paying private day nursery, and that I’d find it very difficult to take them out of that environment and put them back into the state system. We’re already used to taking a massive hit from our wages each month to pay the nursery fees, and prep school wouldn’t cost that much more.

I investigated further and looked at the fees for one of the local prep schools. The basic fees are £3,200 per term. Lunch costs an extra £200 per term. Breakfast and after school club are extra, as are all extracurricular activities. You’re looking at fees of around £10,500 per year and if you add in swimming or music classes would be pushing 11 grand a year. 11 grand PER CHILD. Lest we forget, we have two children and you don’t get much of a sibling discount, if there is one at all. Plus there’s the uniform to buy, school trips to fund and general keeping up with the Joneses stuff to consider. We simply don’t have c.£25,000 a year to spend on schooling the girls. That’s just prep level. The average public school fees are £25-30,000 per year. Double that and you’re looking at almost as much as dh and I earn combined. In short, it costs a LOT more than we’re used to.

Putting my Socialist principles and the financial aspects* to one side for a second, I can see the attraction of public school. You pay for better facilities, a better standard of education and teaching (allegedly), and there’s the ‘club’ aspect on consider. Once you’re ‘in’, you’re better connected and that stands you in good stead for the rest of your life. Plus the uniforms for the prep schools are SO CUTE! Little berets and pinafore dresses with shiny black shoes. They look like perfect children from an Edwardian period drama.

That’s the ideal. The reality can (note I said can) be very different. A couple of friends of the girls are probably going to graduate from nursery to prep school and have started going for open days and interviews. One family went to an open day and were so horrified by the attitude of the headmaster (he was rather shocked that the parents weren’t married) that they refused to apply. Another family went for interview and were rejected by the school. I asked the mother why. “They didn’t reject her they rejected us!” she cried. Apparently the school was concerned that, as one of the parents was self-employed, they might have trouble keeping up with the school fees. Via the local jungle telegraph, I subsequently found out that another family had been accepted by the school. The father was a GP and the headmaster told him in hushed tones that ‘they didn’t have to worry about the waiting list’. Talk about storming the barricades and starting a revolution!

Of course, this is just one particular school that I’m referring to, so it isn’t representative of prep schools generally. Back in the dark days of Twins Club, some of the parents were discussing schools and asked me which prep I’d put the girls’ names down for. They were two months old at the time. I replied that they were probably going to go to one of the state primaries and one mother shouted “YOU’RE GOING TO ENTRUST YOUR CHILDREN TO THE STATE SYSTEM?!” at me. Yeah, it’s that sort of area.

Dh and I are proud products of the state system. It’s difficult to argue with the five degrees we hold between the two of us. I went (through choice) to a rather <ahem> ‘colourful’ secondary school (the phrase ‘All human life is here’ pretty much described it) and was lucky enough to be taught by some wonderful, dedicated, nurturing teachers who gave me the confidence to believe I was good enough to go to University and make something of myself. I was also lucky enough to have supportive parents who would read to me and help me with maths as a child. I wasn’t exactly left to flounder and I took the opportunities that were presented to me.

We can now put our education to good use and support the girls’ learning at home. It makes me so mad when I hear a parent whingeing that their child isn’t being taught to do something at school. TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY AND DO IT YOURSELF! If the girls are doing a topic at nursery, we’ll do activities at home to reinforce it. In short, we’ve got the time, funds (ish) and willingness to support their education. I don’t expect school to teach the girls everything. It’s totally unrealistic.

That’s why I’m happy to send the girls to a state school. We’re lucky enough to be in the catchment area for a reasonably nice state primary (not too bad, not amazing) and that’ll be first on the list when we apply in the Autumn.  The second choice isn’t too bad either. The third choice might have to be the Catholic school but I’m confident we won’t need to worry about it. Knowing my luck, I should probably stock up on rosary beads and confessions (not difficult) just in case…

*Would I send the girls to prep school if money were no object? My honest answer is no, although I’d ensure we moved into the catchment area for a shit-hot state primary.