The great school place sausage machine
Published: 1st Mar 2012 10:53:55
Moving house. Signing up a tutor. Going to church more. The scramble for school places has always been a stressful affair, but now some parents, and particularly the middle classes, seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to get ahead of the game.
With almost one in six children failing to get into their first choice secondary school last year - and the primary school picture not looking much better - parents seem to be feeling the pressure to up the ante.
So what tactics are some parents employing to try and secure places at the most sought-after schools?
Most parents tend to start thinking about primary schools the year before their children reach school age, but for some extreme planners, the strategy starts at conception.
Mother-of-two Elizabeth Moody-Stuart, 38, from Brighton, says her mind started racing the moment she first found out she was pregnant.
"When we knew kids were on the way we moved to a house which was within walking distance of the best state primary school and Brighton College, our preferred secondary school - it was part of the plan," she says. "I went to boarding school from the age of nine, so for me it was very important that my children had friends round the corner and had a sense of community."
Moody-Stuart, whose children are two and five months old, says she and her husband deliberately decided to buy "slap bang in the middle" of the schools catchment areas.
Far from being an isolated case, Janette Wallis, a senior advisor at the Good Schools Guide, says Moody-Stuart is part of a trend of ambitious parents who are planning their child's education earlier and earlier.
"In the state sector you can't put names down early, but some parents start planning to move house to be near the right school while their child is still in a pram. Conversely, many independent schools no longer work on the first come, first served basis, so registering a child at birth has become less common," she says.
Ever since it became apparent that some state schools are much better than others, catchment areas have driven demand for homes.
While upping sticks might not be a problem for the affluent, for the cash-strapped it can be a difficult decision which involves careful planning and considerable compromise. "There is often a property bubble around catchment areas. If a school makes a house more saleable or desirable, it can increase the value tremendously," says Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents.
Estate agents say many parents are prepared to take the hit, calculating the cost of a private education against the cost of mortgage repayments. But Justine Roberts, the co-founder of Mumsnet, says parents are sometimes vilified for being too pushy, leaving them feeling guilty about making the call.
Of course others simply cannot afford to move, and Wallis says the conundrum is causing some parents to go to desperate measures. "Catchment area cheats reached a high water mark a couple of years ago - probably because the profile of punishments has been raised since then - but there are still plenty of parents who stretch the truth and many of them don't think of it as cheating," she says.
Attempts at trickery Wallis has come across include using a grandparent's address within the catchment area or renting a flat (or even a hotel room) within the catchment area and having mail redirected.
There is also non-catchment sharp practice, taking advantage of the rules on siblings and children with special needs.
Some parents pretend a cousin, or even an unrelated child with the same surname, is a sibling, Wallis says. Others have tried to wangle an unwarranted statement of special needs or medical problems.
Parents are taking on tutors in increasing numbers to gear children up for passing grammar school entrance exams or other selective school tests.
Wallis says part of the demand is down to the knock-on effect of recession-hit parents - who might have once opted for private prep schools - turning to state primaries and "topping up with tutoring".
Grammar school catchment areas - such as parts of Buckinghamshire and Kent - are fertile ground for tutors, she says. "It is very hard to find a child at a grammar school in the whole of the UK that didn't have any private tutoring."
Anita Moss, director of First Tutors, which has 15,000 tutors on its books, says whereas 10 years ago traditional agencies would have been much more expensive, tutors can now be hired for £20 an hour. But that has not stopped super tutors doing good trade. Bonas MacFarlane, which charges £56-£75 an hour - on top of a £192 registration fee - says business is booming, with tutoring up 30% year on year.
With a fixed number of places and competition getting tougher, Roberts says the temptation is to tutor earlier and earlier. Sue Templeton, who runs Twist in the Tale, which runs tuition courses in verbal reasoning for the 11+ in Buckinghamshire, says their company is getting more inquiries from parents of children as young as five "keen to fill any gap that they think there is".
But the tutor trend is not just confined to grammar school aspirants. According to the Sutton Trust charity, nearly 25% of all 11-16-year-olds received some private or home tuition last year, compared with 18% in 2005.
With faith schools frequently doing well in league tables, there is growing anxiety that many parents are exaggerating or even completely fabricating the nature of their religious affiliation.
Oversubscribed faith schools - which are allowed to give priority to applicants of its faith - usually seek proof of regular attendance at a relevant place of worship.
There are also certain religious milestones that children would have been expected to do at the appropriate age, such as baptism for Roman Catholic primary schools and first communion for secondary schools.
While some parents see no problem with the process, others suggest it is not only unfair, but also puts parents in a very difficult situation.
I cannot help but feeling this is not only an injustice, a kind of religious prejudice, but a grotesque misuse of taxpayers money”
Andy Hamilton, a father of two from Reigate, Surrey, says parents in the area where he lives "have no choice, you either pray or pay".
"Through no fault of their own... this frankly disgusting situation has turned the parents into hypocrites as they do anything to get their children into [the local Catholic school]," he says.
The musician, who is not religious, says his family has been "extremely financially challenged" after they sent their 16-year-old to an independent school because the only state options were a faith school or a school "situated close to a housing estate fraught with social problems".
"I cannot help but feel this is not only an injustice, a kind of religious prejudice, but a grotesque misuse of taxpayers money," he says.
Hamilton is not alone. British Humanist Association campaigner Richy Thompson argues "faith schools can also be socio-economically selective, with richer parents more likely to manipulate the system".
But both the Catholic Church and the Church of England deny any suggestion that parents start going to church to manipulate the admissions criteria, or that faith schools are socio-economically selective.
Those who don't get their first choice can appeal. With well over half of appeals failing and the number of appeals against primary school admissions at an all-time high, deciding to bite the bullet might seem like a daunting task.
But for Lisa, a 39-year-old mother of two from St Neots, in Cambridgeshire, it was well worth putting up a fight.
She says her situation was slightly complicated because she wanted to move counties for a relationship - but would only do so if her eldest, who was 11 at the time, got into a good school.
"I found a house I wanted to buy in the catchment area, which was about £50,000 to £70,000 more expensive than just outside - even though the houses were smaller - gave my rent notice and put in an offer.
"But at the point of exchange I was 35th on waiting list for the senior school, and first on the junior school waiting list for my youngest, so I held off exchanging contracts and appealed both," she says.
Lisa says she was advised that if she appealed on the basis of the needs of her eldest child, because she was so far down the waiting list, she would have no chance. But if she could prove the school would not be adversely affected by taking one more child, she might have a stab at it.
For the next six weeks, she says she researched previous class sizes, whether they had done well in the stats, how many teachers and teaching assistants there had been, classroom sizes and buildings.
"In the end I won on a technicality because I found that three classrooms weren't being used, which showed the school was not full."
Lisa appreciates the other 34 parents on the waiting list would probably not be too impressed by her actions, but she says she has no qualms about "doing what she had to do".
"I'm not overly educated. You get out what you put in. For me it was absolutely worth it. I've had a few years as a single parent, and it focused my attention on what was important - my children have always been and always will be my number one priority," she says.
Lisa says the appeal was one of the most stressful times of her life, but she would advise anyone who gets declined to go for it.
Education expert Professor Stephen Heppell, from Bournemouth University, believes that people who channel all their energy into catchment areas or getting into faith schools are missing the point.
He thinks what happens inside the home - especially during the first three years of a child's life - will have far more bearing on their future.
"For example all the research is unequivocal that too much television is catastrophic. Children should watch no more than 30 minutes of television a day - interactivity on phones or iPads are fine - they need to be engaged," he says.
When it comes to schools, Heppell says parents often run away from small schools, but his opinion, they are the best.
"If your dog dies, teachers will know you had one and what it's name was - there is a level of intimacy, teachers, parents and pupils all know each other," he says.
And Heppell thinks it is important to try and find something that children are successful at.
"Whether it is cycling, piano, baton twirling or a marching band, help them to develop a skill, so that they can carry that confidence into school."
Author and freelance writer Alice Griffin, 36, agrees that education starts at home. She is currently home schooling her daughter, who is nearly five, although not just in the traditional sense, as the family frequently travels.
"My take is that education happens all the time in all places and that parents can often be the facilitators of this education.
"For instance I will be travelling to Italy for a month's farm volunteering with my daughter this year and our personal view is that this will provide a wonderful educational experience in itself.
"I expect on a practical level she will learn about caring for animals, food growing and preservation, making wool, making cheese and of course the environment and how to best care for it.
"These experiences lead to lessons in respect, compassion, independence, problem solving, developing a passion. Plus, the lessons a child can take simply from playing out in nature are immeasurable in my opinion," she says.
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Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. The great school place sausage machine. [Online] (Updated 01 Mar 2012)
Available at: http://www.glasgowwired.co.uk/news.php/1415063-The-great-school-place-sausage-machine [Accessed 13th May 2013]
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