Coping with school admissions angst
31 Mar 2008 BBC News Online
Coping with school admissions angst
Or maybe A-day should stand for national 'angst day'.
I fear for 'A-day'. In particular, I fear it will increase parental anxiety and this will make things worse for our children who, according to recent surveys, are already amongst the unhappiest in the world.
A-day is a new phenomenon created by the requirement for all admissions in England to be announced on the same day. It looks set to become as big an event as the GCSE and A-level results days in August.
These landmark days, when families receive exam results or school admissions offers, involve tens of thousands of individual stories of joy, relief, disappointment and despair.
But, if we are honest, although these days play big in the media, these are also days when journalists have to scrabble to find a genuine national news story.
The meaningful national figures for exam success across the national cohort of pupils are not published until several months later.
And with admissions we have to wait a week or so to get the national picture.
What is more, these national statistics usually change only slightly from year to year - certainly not by a big enough margin to justify the acres of newsprint they receive.
So this year, we eventually learned that just over 100,000 (or almost one in five) children did not get their first choice of school.
And what was the unofficial figure that emerged last year? Funnily enough, it was just over 100,000. So not much change there.
This did not prevent parts of the media whipping up the anxiety levels amongst parents.
One national newspaper headline claimed: 'Half of children miss out on their first choice of schools'.
The reality, of course, was that one in five missed out.
The only justification for that headline appeared to be that in some parts of London (actually only in a very few boroughs, but perhaps close to the homes of national newspaper editors) over 40% were denied their first choice.
As it happens, I was in an Essex secondary school that day helping pupils with a news-writing project.
Several had chosen to re-write this admissions story. All had taken the headline as gospel and were convinced that half of all children in the country were missing out on their first choice of school.
So if we are, as seems inevitable, to have an 'A-day' surrounded by fanfare, can I appeal for a bit of calm.
Of course, if you are one of those 100,000 families it is very worrying.
I know. I have been there - twice. Both our daughters failed to get their first choice of secondary school on the initial allocations day.
But let's look a bit more closely at the reality of school admissions. This was the first year of the new School Admissions Code.
One of the new rules forbids schools from discriminating against parents who do not put them down as first choice.
In the past, this meant many parents had to put a school down as first choice when, ideally, it was not top of their list.
The old system would nevertheless have recorded them as getting their first choice of school, whereas in fact it was not their favourite option.
Now parents no longer have to play this cruel game; they can put a school as their first preference even if they have only a tiny chance of getting in.
In doing so, they do not compromise their chances at the second or third choice school.
With this change, it might well have been expected that there would have been an increase in the numbers denied their first choice.
But this was not the case.
So, let's not get carried away with the idea that the problem of school admission has suddenly become worse.
Yet, of course, for many parents it is frustrating and - if the only school place offered is unsatisfactory - also harrowing.
We hear many of these cases in the national media.
But you have to wonder what effect this has on the children.
Even if parents are unhappy about the school being offered, and are planning to appeal, surely it would be better to avoid denigrating the school their child may, in the end, have to attend?
I have often heard parents moaning in front of their own children about the school they have been offered and been left wondering what effect this was having on the child.
No one likes to work themselves up into a lather of self-righteous indignation more than journalists, and especially columnists!
But let's remember the effect on the children.
In my own case, after several weeks - in one case months - of waiting, my daughters did eventually get into our first preference schools.
Luckily this was the result of the natural churn of places so we did not have to go to appeal.
But throughout that time, whatever our real concerns, we tried to be positive about the schools that had accepted our girls.
Secondary school transfer has enough anxieties for 11-year-olds without parents adding to them.
Of course, the frustrations over school admissions arise - not because schools are worse than they used to be - but because expectations are higher.
And they are higher because politicians of all stripes have tended to suggest that parental choice is possible.
Yet the reality is there will never be a day when everyone gets their first preference.
Even if we reach the utopia where every school is a good school, there will still be some that are more popular than others.
The ability to state a preference is desirable. Guaranteeing that choice will be met is quite another matter.
We have to be honest enough to accept that, despite the political rhetoric.
So, if A-day is to become a national fixture, let's at least try to be calm about it, especially in front of the children.