This is how it goes. You pee on a stick. Small hurrah. You bite your nails for the next 12 weeks before sharing the news. Toast. Sorry, mocktail for you. Flash- forward a few weeks — you have yet to hit check out on that flattering maternity dress in your Seraphine basket — when it starts. A whisper from a colleague here, a flash of panic across a well-meaning friend’s face there, a schools’ special in Parents magazine. The chorus of voices becomes deafeningly loud, the same question repeats again and again: have you put your unborn child’s name down for nurseries? Schools? Universities?
You laugh it off at first; they can’t be serious. But they are. And soon you laugh no more, because the whisper has built to a terrifying roar of third-hand horror stories along tales of creepy tutors and Zoloft-fuelled childhoods. Now, at bedtime your mind rattles off school names rather than baby ones.
First, let me say that I get it. You’re not wrong. And you’re not crazy, especially if you live in London, where there aren’t enough places at good schools for all our cherished offspring. Yes, your child’s formal education is a big deal and it deserves adequate attention and research. But before you start panic-baking muffins to ingratiate yourself with the local church school, or sending a flurry of cheques to the top ranking independents, take a moment to follow my advice. I have been there and lived to tell the tale.
Here is my list of what to bear in mind as you embark on the schooling journey. Take a deep breath, read carefully and remember that the biggest factor is your involvement. Just the fact that you’re reading this article means you care enough to guarantee you will end up with a solution you can live with.
- Put the phone down. Step away from the Internet. Chat groups, online forums, mums networks on Facebook etc. are full of rumours about one school or another. Disregard them.
- Learn how the system works here in UK and what the different paths are. And, please remember that London is very much its own educational bubble, so what is typical in the capital won’t be in the rest of the country and vice versa.
- If you are in a position to consider private education, run your numbers. Factor in potential siblings and the likelihood of maintaining your current income. Be conservative. Fees go up constantly.
- If you are thinking of state schools, make sure you understand the different types of state schools, including faith schools. If you are not religious, but still eyeing the outstanding church school at the end of the road, make sure you understand just ‘how religious you need to be’ to get in.
- Should you consider the state system, understand how the catchment areas and admissions’ process work. Don’t trust estate agents or even local friends as catchment areas change constantly; instead go straight to the source: the school and the borough it belongs to.
- Study the Ofsted reports, but don’t make a call exclusively on that. Remember that they can quickly become dated if a school’s management has changed, and that Ofsted’s criteria for awarding the ‘Outstanding’ rating might not tally with your own. Cross-reference Ofsted results with League table positions to get a nuanced view of what the school’s ranking means for your child.
- Visit the schools, meet the heads and speak to existing parents. Can you see both yourself and your child fitting in? Do you like the kids? This will be your peer group for the next 7 years.
- If you are opting for the private system, learn to decipher the jargon. Public, prep, preparatory and independent schools are all fee-paying schools. There are selective and non-selective schools. Co-ed and single sex. Nurturing and more academic establishments. Prep schools and pre- prep schools. You will come across 3+ and 4+ assessments. Then there are 7+, 11+ and 13+. What do all these things mean? It is very important you get to grips with the terminology so you don’t get any unwelcome surprises later on.
Nursery versus Nursery School: Think of a Nursery as day care. They are there to help working parents with childcare from a very young age. They are traditionally open from early morning to early evening, and they remain open throughout the year. Nursery Schools on the other hand, operate like schools and usually start around the age of 2,5-3,5. Nursery Schools can be stand-alone Nursery Schools or they can be attached to primary/junior schools. Some Nursery Schools act as ‘feeder schools’ to primary/junior schools. For some of the most sought-after Nursery Schools, you need to register your child as early as possible (ie from the Labour Ward).
Selective school: Your child will have to do some kind of formal assessment at the age of around 3 (hence 3+) or 4 (hence 4+).
Non-selective: Your child won’t have to be assessed, but the parents usually have to be interviewed, and oftentimes a report from your child’s nursery school is needed. I can hear you think that surely a selective school will have brighter children. Not necessarily the case at all. Check the exit results and see for yourself.
Co-ed and single sex: How do you feel about it? How does your other half feel? Pros and cons? What options are there for either? What happens in senior schools?
Nurturing versus academic: You need a school that matches your educational philosophy and your hopes for your child, but you also need to recognize what you’re working with and which environment will suit a particular child best. Know your child, their personality, their limits and don’t lie to yourself.
Prep school and pre-prep: A prep school usually goes from Reception or Year 1 all the way to 11 or 13. A pre-prep will end after Year 2 and your child will take the entrance exam most commonly referred to as ‘the 7+’. ‘The 11+’ exams are mostly for girls or for those transferring from state to private, and the ‘13+’ are usually for boys.
Confused by it all? Many are and it takes a lot of reading, researching, talking to friends and visiting schools to build the knowledge to make the right decision. But you’re not alone.
If you are time poor or if you have done what you can and still feel you need guidance, please get in touch. I have been advising people on how the system works and the steps to follow to get access to the best schools since I started NW8-mums nearly a decade ago after the birth of my first child. I work with a small international team now, and we would be delighted to help you too!
By Karin Thyselius, founder of NW8-mums & Magus Education