When you’re a kid at primary school, your biggest worries are who's “it” or the chances of getting a snow day. But for parents, it’s another matter entirely. Most people don’t want their offspring to underachieve and end up in a failing school. Nor do they want to feel like their child has been cheated out of a good education by parents that can afford to diddle the system.
Last week, around 600,000 families found out whether their 4-year-olds had been awarded a place in reception class at their first choice of primary school for September. Although councils including Birmingham, Kent, Brighton and Hove, and Essex reported that a higher proportion of parents than last year had got their first choice of primary school, there was still big disappointment in areas of high demand, with some parents unable to get their kids into any of their preferred schools.
“For fuck sake,” said one parent on Facebook when she found out her child had missed out on all of the top five school choices she put down that were on her doorstep. “How does this algorithm even work?” The mum of two now faces sending her child to a school with a poor reputation and having to travel by public transport each day (with her younger child in tow), rather than a quick walk down the road. Her only hope is to try and move her child after the first term if a space comes up elsewhere, or get on a waiting list and hope someone else drops out.
So what's it all about? Primary schools can vary a lot. Not just in terms of league tables and Ofsted reports, but in their ethos and reputation. Some parents choose to visit a school and see if they are impressed by the headteacher; others focus more on exam results. Certain schools are also considered feeder schools for secondary places, so getting the right primary can impact on a child's whole education.
One issue is that most primary schools in England use proximity as their main admissions criterion, meaning that, in densely populated areas, access to the most popular schools can be restricted to a few hundred metres from the school gate. As a result, those that can are moving as close as possible to their school of choice.
Chloe, a mum of one from Yorkshire, did this and it paid off. “Ollie has had his place in primary school confirmed, yey," she says. "Moving house has all been worth it."
This might sound drastic but it's a game that some parents feel they have to play. “We have to move, it’s too important,” said John, father to a 2-year-old, who is planning on moving closer to a good nearby school early next year.
“I think in the long term, schooling is way more important than having less space to play," says John, who will have to downsize in order to afford to be in the catchment area of his preferred school.
Others agree. Sasha Marshall from Reading has two kids under 3 and says she will have to move house in the next year in order to get her kids into a decent school. “We're planning on moving this year as we have to apply for schools in January so we have to find somewhere with a selection of schools we like,” she says. “Obviously, house prices go up the closer you are to a good school. It’s quite stressful to think your child could be put in a rubbish school because of where you live and what you can afford. People shouldn’t have their futures defined by their wealth.”
Another, simpler way of getting kids into their top choice of school is to accept whatever they get allocated and go on a waiting list for other schools at the same time, in the hope that someone might drop out. Some parents also opt to get their children into an affiliated nursery or pre-school in a bid to "get in" with the school, or even ham up their religious beliefs if there's a good faith school nearby.
However, one of the major repercussions of all this is that children from poor families are only half as likely to get a place in an "outstanding" school compared with their wealthier peers. Currently, only 15% of children from the poorest 30% of families attend a primary school rated as outstanding by Ofsted inspectors, compared with 27% of children from the richest 30% of families.
Those that can afford it are far more likely to get their way but, ultimately, it's a valid worry for any parent and, for many, not something they anticipated having to deal with. "Schooling is something that I never wanted to have to think about and never thought I would," says John. "But it’s gradually become a complete obsession. I stay up at night thinking about it.”
John says the issue of schools taps into his competitive nature. “I find it easier to switch off my competitive instinct for myself, but when it comes to my daughter I have to be pushy on her behalf. The thing that stresses me out most is the idea that she won't get the opportunities that other people have.”