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Secondary school places – the fallout

HUNDREDS of you will have received your child’s secondary school place allocation letter by now, and will either be delighted or disappointed.

My view on parents being given any ‘choice’ about their preferred schools is well documented in these weekly rants, so I won’t bore you now, albeit to say we unsuccessfully went through the stressful appeals process three years ago.

Unless you really have a really good reason, and I mean like twins being spilt up, I really would think hard about whether to put you and your child through it. You can read up on all the procedures via http://www.northamptonshire.gov.uk.

I would, however, recommend putting them on the school’s waiting list if your child wants you to. Two years later, our son was offered a place when someone left.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is listen to, reassure and support your child whichever school they attend. Secondary school is scary enough without any more stress.

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Get ready to apply for school places for September 2012

BONNIE wants to go to school. She’s only been in nursery part time for a year but has now decided the time has come to move onwards and upwards.

She can’t quite get her head around the fact she’s not old enough yet.

After all, some of her mates from nursery have donned their smart jumpers and headed off into the big wide world. So why hasn’t she?

We’re telling her gently that she’s not old enough yet, and that after the next summer holidays it will be time for school.

Yet at the same time we’re getting letters about applying for her place right now. Scary huh?

The applications process starts almost 12months in advance, with primary school preferences to be in by noon on January 16, 2012, and the even more imminent and controversial secondary places in by 5pm on October 31 this year.

If your child is turning 4 between September 1, 2011 and August 31, 2012, then you’ll need to fill in primary forms, by post or online.

If your child is in year 6 and turns 11 between the same dates, the you’ll be applying for secondary school about now.

I’ve done this process several times over now, including an appeal, and it doesn’t get less stressful. You just have to hope for the best.

Admittedly we’re now in the enviable situation of having ‘sibling link,’ or a brother or sister already in the schools we prefer, but I certainly wouldn’t assume that’s a free pass. In fact I know it isn’t. Every year we hear the stories of children ‘failing’ (inappropriate word, I know), to get into a school their sibling already attends, or twins being sent to different places.

The idea of parental ‘choice’ about school allocation has screwed up the whole system. It’s led to inequality and over-subscription, messed up the norms of catchment and community and in some cases caused irreparable damage to families.

The stark fact is, unless you have the cash to send them private, you have no choice. You can express a preference, but ultimately, it may be useless.

We’re a perfect bad example. Our sons all went to a primary school that wasn’t our nearest. Due to a complicated story involving us getting jobs in Northampton 13 years ago when we still lived in Bedford, our boys ended up at the school where they’d been to nursery.

Back then there were spaces. Now the same school is oversubscribed, and we’re living on the opposite side of town. Meanwhile, I know nothing about the school nearest to us, which is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Do we move Billy out of the school he’ll have attended for five years, away from his friends, the teachers he knows and the excellent after-school club? Do we take Bonnie away from her nursery pals?

So, get ready to visit the school open days, weigh up the pros and cons and fill in those forms. Then endure the agonising four months waiting for the decision.

The biggest test you’ll face is staying positive, keeping your anxious anticipation to yourself.

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Don’t hate me, but the NSB waiting list has come up trumps

IT was Dougie who brought me The Letter. Our second son, proffering the manilla envelope with a Northampton School for Boys franking mark. His school.

With just a week left before the summer holidays, he wondered if he was in trouble.

As previously detailed in these columns, we have three sons in three different schools around Northampton.

Our first-born, Jed, didn’t get his first choice of the ridiculously oversubscribed school for boys, and has attended Malcolm Arnold Academy-nee-Unity-nee-Trinity for the past two years.

Much to our surprise, Dougie, a year younger, did get into NSB, where he has spent the first year of his secondary education happily knee-deep in sport, more sport, testosterone and sport.

Meanwhile seven-year-old Billy is endeavouring to make his own mark, noisily, at the large urban primary school his two brothers attended before him.

Back to the letter: it wasn’t about Dougie – it was about Jed. It was offering him a Year 9 place at NSB to start in September as two boys in his age group have left.

To say it’s come as a shock is an understatement. We’d applied two years ago, and along with hundreds of other parents, had failed to get a place. We’d appealed, and while 11 appeals had been successful, ours hadn’t.

We were told we could join a waiting list, but warned that the likelihood a place coming up was very remote. Indeed we reasoned that having been forced to take 11 more pupils in than they wanted, the chances of a place becoming available was about as likely as Jeremy Clarkson buying an electric car and joining the Green Party.

Stubbornly, I put him on the waiting list anyway.

And then last week The Letter arrived.

Jed was understandably conflicted. Having settled well at MAA, made friends, worked out which teachers he liked, been given opportunities to tour the Olympic Park, have lunch with Boris Johnson, act as a mock lawyer in a real magistrates court, play bass guitar, argue politics with Tory sponsor David Ross and talk on the radio about his experiences of the new academy, he was now going to have to decide if he wanted to leave, at age 13. We told him to sleep on it.

It was Dougie who volunteered the first advice. Dougie, 12, who has spent his entire life being known as ‘Jed’s brother,’ who was pleased to be at NSB without his older sibling.

“You should take it,” he said. “Think of the sport. Think how mad you get when you can’t do the sport you want at MA. . . Plus I want everyone to refer to you as ‘Dougie’s brother.’”

We discussed the pros and cons of each school. And although he was grateful for those friends and teachers who’d encouraged him at MA, and would certainly miss having girls around, he was resolute: NSB had been his first choice school.

Their facilities, like it or not, are amazing and the standard of teaching is proven. The range of subjects offered at GCSE is wider and the discipline strict. We agreed that while we felt disloyal, MA still needed a few more years to settle and that NSB could simply offer Jed more now.

I have spent the last week feeling guilty at our luck. I’ve so many friends whose sons also didn’t get in, and have spent hours, and plenty of column inches, raging about the unfairness of NSBs refusal to have a catchment area. I still stand by that opinion. If fewer boys were being bused in from Bedford, Brackley, Oundle and upmarket villages, there would be more places for boys who actually live in and around Northampton. It is, after all, NORTHAMPTON School for Boys.

Ultimately, however much we want all schools to have the same facilities as NSB, making ‘parental choice’ a redundant concept, they don’t.

We don’t even know if we’ve done the right thing. You take the best chances you can for your children and hope it all works out in the end.

One thing I will miss though: Malcolm Arnold’s uniform is far nicer than NSB’s.

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When it comes to GCSE exams I’m a dunce

WE had parents’ evening last week for our eldest, currently attending the most recently re-named, re-headed and re-uniformed state secondary school in Northampton.

I’m sure the teachers hate it, but I quite like the old-style, formal face-to-face with all his subject teachers. (Tough luck teachers, this is revenge for your massively-longer-than-us paid-holidays).

We did, however, find ourselves utterly baffled by various references to exams. You might imagine that exams are a long way off for our Year 8, 13-year-old son. After all, don’t GCSEs happen at 16, at the end of Year 11?

Aren’t trillions of kids sitting their GCSEs right at this moment, probably scared out of their wits by the exams they’ve been shepherded into for the last five years?

It appears not. We were baffled by references to half-credits, exams being taken at 14 and 15, short-courses, double-awards, assessment units, higher and foundation grades, weighting and frameworks. I went home and tried to look it all up to try to understand.

I’m still baffled.

The Government’s direct.gov website was no help. It read like spewed gobbledegook, and had links to the National Curriculum website, (www.more. gobbledygook.gov.uk).

I know I sound old, but what happened to doing all your exams at 16 in one hideously hot, stressful summer, in subjects that you chose at 14?

According to direct.gov, in one of its more lucid sections: “GCSEs are available in more than 40 academic and nine ‘applied’ subjects. The applied subjects are related to a broad area of work, such as engineering or tourism, and many are double the size of traditional GCSEs.

You can also take many GCSEs as short courses. These are equivalent to half a full GCSE, so can be taken in half the time. However, if you learn more slowly than others, you can spread a short course out over the same length as a traditional GCSE. Short courses also allow more able students to take extra subjects, like a second foreign language.”

OK. But what if your child’s school doesn’t offer the chance to take two languages, or if subjects clash? Or if they don’t offer an exam at all?

Then there’s what must be the thorny issue of whether the teacher will put you into an exam which will only allow a maximum of grade C, or allow you to sit a presumably harder one which means you can get an A*?

I know this isn’t new. (After all, I did O’Levels and CSEs, as a backup, and the latter saved me from being an utter failure in a few subjects).

Teachers, presumably with not inconsiderable pressure from league table-obsessed headteachers, have to choose whether to put little Johnny into an exam which on a good day might get him a B, and on a bad day, an E, or chose instead to push him into doing an exam which should see him get a C but not allow for anything better. I bet that causes a few Parent V Teacher confrontations. After all, league tables need Cs, but parents want As and Bs, even if little Johnny’s only real understanding of the alphabet is via the Y, X, A and B buttons on an xBox or Playstation controller.

At least we’ve got a little while before all this exam malarkey kicks in for real.

To those pupils and parents currently embarking on six-weeks of exam hell, I wish you the best of luck.

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Staying positive over secondary school admissions?

IF you have a child who is about to go up to secondary school in September, then this week is likely to be horribly nerve-wracking, and you have my complete sympathy.

This is the week the school place allocation letters go out (or if you can wait several hours for the county council computer to grind into action, you may find out online).

As detailed in previous episodes of these weekly ramblings, I have had two experiences of this so far. For one child we got our first choice, for the other, we didn’t.

You feel guilt when your child doesn’t get their first choice and guilt about everyone else when they do. But thankfully, both our boys seem to be getting on OK in their different schools, which have various pros and cons.

The whole system is a farce, but for the sake of our kids we have to make the best of it.

I can’t stop you being anxious, but I can tell you that the right thing for you to do is be positive around your child and not rant and rave about the school they may end up having to go to, where chances are, they may actually be happy and thrive.

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For those about to face the academy steamroller

I FEEL for the parents, staff and pupils of Weston Favell School. I really do. I’m sure my fellow parents of Malcolm Arnold-nee-Unity-nee-Trinity pupils do too.

For the last few years, we watched the chaos and disruption wreaked by the Academy steamroller as it did/didn’t/did turn our state secondary school in a disadvantaged, urban catchment area into, well, a school with a new head, a name and new uniform.

Now Weston Favell is going through the same débâcle, as its potential sponsors are named. At least Weston parents are being told straight-up: “You don’t have a choice about this, other than to state a preference for a sponsor.”

Organisations on the sponsor list include The David Ross Foundation, which already sponsors The Malcolm Arnold Academy and another in Grimsby, and E-ACT, whose director general, one-time Northampton School for Boys head Bruce Liddington, also wants to set up a “free school” east of the town. Other potential sponsors are Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham, Barnfield College, Bedford College, Hanover Foundation, Ormiston Trust, Priory Federation of Academies and ARK Schools.

Weston, by all accounts, seemed to be improving of late under their new head Betty Hasler, who told parents last week: “There is no choice not to be an academy. The Department of Education has made it very clear that we cannot stay as we are and if we do not choose are own sponsor then the Government will make the choice for us.”

Similarly, Unity’s previous head Mrs Gwynne had been well-liked and had started to turn the school around. But becoming a ‘new’ academy means a new headteacher is non-negotiable. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but this means Ms Hasler could be getting the boot(if she hadn’t already announced her intention to jump ship).

When Unity/Trinity became Malcolm Arnold Academy in September, I wrote that I would reserve judgement until the school had a chance to settle down. I’m nervously and impatiently standing by that statement.

After all, how do we parents really know what’s going on? We chuck our children through the gates, remind them about homework, wash their sports kit and and hope for the best. I get no feedback from my son who is 13 and only grunts.

At first, many promises were made. Malcolm Arnold Academy, under the David Ross Foundation , vowed to have a well-staffed school with better discipline and beneficial links with public schools.

We were also to be a music and maths specialist, but as far as I’m aware, the school still has no Head of Music (job adverts had stated the position would start in January, five months after the school opened). What I do hear, from fellow parents and staff, is that very little has really changed. There’s still a lack of consistency in teaching and discipline.

There are, however, new opportunities. Our usually mono-syllabic first-born used his gift of the gab to win the chance to have a tour of the Olympic stadium site and visit Mayor Boris at his London HQ. Apparently David Ross won the trip for a handful of his academy students in a charity raffle! Jed’s playing hockey – which he loves – thanks to the efforts of staff who have done a deal with Thomas Becket to share training. This week he went to the theatre to watch Private Peaceful. He’s also taking part in a schools competition to stage a mock Magistrate’s Court trial. All these things make his younger brother, who got into the over-subscribed Northampton School for Boys, green with envy.

The only advice I have for Weston’s anxious parents is: Don’t panic. Yes, it’s a pain to have your child’s education fiddled with at every turn. No, there’s not a lot you can do about it. All we can ever do as parents is to hope that the school does its absolute best to give your child every opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, and that we as parents find the time/money/enthusiasm to support them.

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Seeing your children turn into teens can be as baffling as having a newborn

THINGS have changed recently in our house. The basic dynamic of The Parent is Always Right is not as cut and dried as it used to be.

There are always small changes in a house where a new sibling has arrived every couple of years or so, but while they are all aged under ten(ish), the rule of Don’t Do What I Do, Do What I Say has kept things on an even, albeit not very democratic, keel.

Now we have a teenager in the house, and another racing to leave pre-teendom behind, it’s getting trickier.

The elder two get more independence, which the younger two feel is unfair, even though they still want their noses wiped and their laces tied.

The elder two are also expected to increase their contribution to the basic running of the household chores, at the same time that their age means they find it impossible to have any control over their own clothing or belongings. They simply all end up on the floor. Even when the washing basket, school bags or dustbins are within an arm’s length of where their ‘stuff’ ends up.

Add to that the need for more frequent washing, the increase in homework, the addition of girlfriends-you’ve-never-met and the creeping introduction of not-telling-your-parents-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth, and your carefully honed practical parenting skills go out of the window.

In short, seeing your children turn into teens can be as baffling as having a newborn. But the biggest difference between the two stages of development is that you can actually remember being a teenager yourself.

Without wishing to stereotype all teenage boys into the roles of Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke’s Kevin and Perry, it does catch you unawares when your previously inoffensive child turns 13 and inexplicably starts to rudely answer back, or spin an elaborate web of lies to cover up something they knew full well wasn’t allowed.
After the initial incredulity, and the inevitable angry counter retorts, you have to remind yourself that most of the time, they barely realise they are doing it. Getting into a screaming match with a 13 year old just because they muttered and back-chatted about still having a set bed-time isn’t very adult – as Bloke, the much calmer parent, frequently reminds me after the event.

It’s easier with little ones, really, it is. If they are rude to you, usually a cross look and “manners!” will do the trick, or at worst, sending them to their room or withholding privileges. It usually all ends, at the worst, with teary hugs and apologies.

It must be difficult being the eldest and having to go through the teen years first, not only because you haven’t had the advantage of seeing someone else get caught, but because your parents haven’t a clue how to react either.
I promised I wouldn’t embarrass him too much in these columns, but I recently found out the real reason our eldest had been volunteering to cycle to school. It was so he could wait until we’d left so he could wear his non-regulation Converse baseball boots to school instead of the boring black slips-ons he’s already kicked to bits.
My fury wasn’t actually about the boots, it was about the subterfuge. Plus the Big Fat Lie he told a teacher about how his school shoes had holes in, implying we hadn’t bothered to replace them. The shame.
It seems innocuous, but what I struggle with my growing boys is the ease of the lie. I truly find it painful when they fib to me. I’ve always told them that they’ll be in more trouble for the lie than for the original wrong-doing.
Yet I know I’m lying to myself for thinking that my kids won’t be just as devious as I was. After all, at Jed’s age, as soon as I got on the school bus I would flick the brace on my teeth into my pocket and swap my clumpy school shoes for the black suede, paisley-patterned, pointy stilettos that I’d hidden in my bag and which were definitely not allowed.

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The relief of not being caught up in the agony of school applications

THIS is the first time since 2007 we haven’t been wrapped up in the autumn stress-fest that is secondary school admission applications.

I can’t say I’m missing it.

If you have a child in Year Six, the final year of primary school, then you have to apply by November 1, at 5pm to get a place at school for next September.

Don’t imagine for a second that you will automatically get the school you want. That’s not how it works these days. I’m sure I’ve bored you enough over the years with my grumbles about catchment areas (and how ALL schools should give priority to families who live within three miles). I didn’t get first choice with son 1, appealed, lost, sent him to school that then closed and reopened as academy. A year later, son 2 applied and got a place at school that previously rejected us, under alleged ‘random selection.’ *sighs.

Son 2 was asked to turn up at his over-subscribed school to play rugby from 6pm-8.30pm (under floodlights). They don’t usually train at this time but I guess it looks good to prospective parents. I watched lines and lines of would-be pupils and their hopeful folks trudge around the playing fields in the dark, feeling utter sympathy, knowing that most of them will be disappointed next March when the places are allocated.

Don’t only visit the school you really want. You have to put down three choices, so visit at least three schools. Imagine how difficult it would be for your child, if they’ve been allocated a school they’ve never seen. Not many appeals are successful.

Be open-minded. Talk to other parents, make notes, and get a ‘gut-feeling’ about each place. Don’t look for faults at your ‘second-choice’ schools, and don’t ignore them at the one you’ve already decided you want.

Open days are running for a few weeks, and if you really can’t make their date, ring and ask if it’s possible to make an appointment before November 1.

Above all, take your child with you to the school. And listen when they tell you what they think. You may not agree, but it’s your child who will be spending the next seven years there.

n All open days are detailed in the admissions booklet you will have received with your application, or you can check online via the county council website.

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Does smarter mean smarter?

I CAN’T help but smile while doing the extended school run of a morning, since Malcolm Arnold Academy-nee-Unity-nee-Trinity changed their uniform.

Where once there was a purple fog of sweatshirt-clad teens dragging themselves across Northampton’s Racecourse, now there’s a sea of public-schoolesque blazers and cravats.

New boy Dougie in new uniform and yr 8 Jed, right, in his (and he had a haircut after seeing this photo)

I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting old, but I really like their new look. Whereas before they seemed to look, well, like primary school kids, now they look far more grown-up. They seem to stand up straighter (now I’m worried I’m turning into my mother).

Apparently the girls have mixed feelings about it. Some appreciate that it’s actually ‘on-trend’ this season to have the preppy look. Others are taking every opportunity to use it as a tool of rebellion: cravats around heads, shirts undone, skirts rolled up at the waist to indecent lengths (yes yes, we all did it. . .)

Whether the smarter look actually makes them pay better attention to their schooling remains to be seen.

It seems to be considered an instant fix to a down-at-heel school to give everyone very public-school-style uniforms in the first instance. Whether this is so they are seen to be doing something, or genuinely because they believe it makes pupils take more pride in themselves, well, I guess it would be hard to prove. Uniform change comes with regime change. Which parts of that new regime actually work is often hard to quantify.

With one son at MAA and another at NSB (Northampton School for Boys), we’ve already see how two big secondaries operate in the first week of term.

Last year's secondary school uniform for Jed, er, just like primary but purple

MA has smart uniforms. NSB has smartish uniforms.

NSB has already held after-school trials for Year 7 cross-country, rugby, football, basketball and other activities in lunchtimes. MA hasn’t organised any afterschool clubs yet.

Nor does it actually have a Head of Music in place (despite being a music and maths specialist school?)

MA has lockers for pupils to store belongings.

NSB does not (for Yr 7s, at least).

This means small new boy is carting around a rucksack weighing half his bodyweight, sometimes with two sets of sports kit, for the entire day. Goodness only knows what happens when they start having to take a winter coat too. I understand this is supposed to make them responsible for their belongings. I suspect it may be responsible for giving them back injuries.

This may all seem superficial if both schools are delivering quality teaching in the classroom, and I guess its fair enough to give the new powers at MAA a chance to get things moving, seeing as they only legally took over a fortnight ago.

It’s a relief though, that my elder two boys seem happy and have settled quickly. I’m not happy, however, to be having to iron shirts for the first time in 20 years. I think a homework session for the boys in how to use an iron is due. . .

And while I’m not planning a blow-by-blow account of the term in these columns, it will certainly be interesting for all involved to see how things have gone by next summer. I’m keen to hear your views too.

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Nametags, uniform bankrupcy and whether it’s right to see your children as a social experiment

MY poor children’s lives have already been over-exposed for many years via the ramblings of their mother on newspaper pages, but the new term throws up interesting potential for analysis.

I will have three children in three different state schools across Northampton.

One will be at a controversial new academy, another at an vastly-oversubscribed, catchment-less, single-sex secondary, and the third at a large urban primary without his older brothers.

Three schools also means three different uniforms. All which need name tagging(*shudders).

Up until now, I’ve got away with hand-me-down uniforms and the simplest naming technique for impatient mothers with few sewing skills: the permanent fabric pen.

When the boys were all at the same primary, naming wasn’t a huge job.

1. Find label on new polo-shirt/sweatshirt/trousers/PE kit

2. Write surname on label.

Now we’re dealing with a whole lot more clobber.

The two older boys have new blazers, house colour tags, ties, white shirts, tank-tops, trousers, rugby shirts, rugby shorts, football shorts, t-shirts, boots, trainers and sports socks.

I’m going to have to dig out the iron, or needle and thread, to get names into items that just don’t lend themselves to the easy charms of the marker-pen. Like ties. Or socks.

This means grumpy late-nights for me before they go back (on three different days) later this week.

I was dreading paying for new uniform, at a time when we’re more skint than ever.

However, it could have been worse.

Jed’s new uniform – and that of 1,000 of his schoolmates – has to be paid for by the government because it agreed to turn Malcolm Arnold nee Unity nee Trinity into an academy. The sixth form, who have to wear ‘business suits,’ are getting a voucher or refund for £40.

It would have been galling to shell out again after the £60 or so spent last year on the now redundant purple Unity uniform (suggestions on what to do with it welcome. I’ve already planned a scarecrow for my allotment). We collect the new stuff later this week.

Meanwhile, over at NSB, the costs came in just under £100 for pre-badged blazer, tie, and various bits of sports kit.

Thank goodness little Bill doesn’t mind his hand-me down uniform. He’s happy with three new yellow polos that cost about a fiver. All their trousers came from a 3-for-2 at M&S.

Two pairs of shoes had to be replaced towards the end of last term, so they’ll have to last until Christmas.

So we still need one pair of shoes, several white shirts . . . and lots of blinkin’ name-tags.

But if you think this sounds pricey, how about a friend of a friend in London? She’s just forked out over £300 for compulsory school uniform. . .for ONE CHILD!

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