Photo: Langdon School in 1977
Parents want high academic success for their pupils almost without exception and are likely to buy into whichever schools are able to market themselves as the most academically successful and as ‘the best’ for your child (irrespective of hard evidence to prove these successes, sometimes).
For those parents who are able to knowledgably ‘play the game’ and ‘read the market’, this situation may work out for them and their children, but for those parents who – for no fault of their own – do not understand it, it means that they and their children may end up at a disadvantage.
For parents who do not understand the ways of the school system – and we should be able to sympathise – their confusion and lack of confidence may come across as apathy.
Many parents have been educated in other countries, and some parents not at all. For them to now have to navigate a saturated and convoluted education market must be an incredibly anxious task for a parent who wants the best for their children.
I teach in the London Borough of Newham, and here are the options available for parents and Year 6 pupils, as they work out what to do from Year 7.
Newham is one of the smallest authorities in terms of area – about 14 square miles – and due to it being so densely populated and with such a young population, there are 21 secondaries here, most of which have a very large pupil roll.
Some of these schools are geographically close to where we live, but others would require their children to get multiple buses or the tube. Some are for boys only and some for girls only. Some have a tiny intake, comparatively, such as East London Science School. Some have a very different ethos and pedagogical approach, like School 21. Some have been around for over a century, some have been around for about ten minutes. Some have excellent results, some have poor results. Some schools have excellent reputations, some have unshakeable poor reputations. Some are religiously selective.
But then, some parents also hear down the grapevine that Grammar Schools are the place where the brightest children go, so they look outside of the borough. So as well as having to choose five of the twenty-one, children are also looking to gain access to grammar schools Essex, Redbridge, Ilford and even as far as Kent. And then they have to do the selection process again out of all of these, taking into account the cost of transport; some of my former pupils are traveling upwards of 60 miles every day to go to secondary school.
But also, there are the options of private schools, some of which are highly prestigious, academically selective and charge high fees, and some of which are very cheap and offer very little assurances of their quality and transparency.
Some parents opt for the children to attend schools that are private Islamic institutions which at the moment are ‘off-grid’ with regards Ofsted, which makes it very difficult to know exactly what goes on there; they may be excellent at what they do, they may not be.
The parents face a huge challenge here.
Well-intentioned or otherwise, there are plenty of people who are here offering their support to parents and pupils. One thing that stunned me as I came to see the bigger picture here is that the overwhelming majority of pupils have some form of additional tuition outside of school. Newham is very much a deprived area economically, but the value parents in my school community place on educational success is such that they would sacrifice lots of other spending before they would sacrifice education spending.
Seizing upon this local knowledge though, seemingly everybody is a tutor. Tuition agencies with cardboard signage keep popping up and popping off between the bookies and the chicken shops. ‘Agencies’ for which there is seemingly no quality assurance either, haggle for trade with their cardboard signs, offering primary tuition for £4 an hour.
Some teachers work independently as tutors on the side – I have done so myself, and plenty of my colleagues do it. Many of the madrassas are also offering additional lessons for the kids in English and Maths alongside Quranic study and Arabic lessons. Lots of the schools are open on the weekends running additional classes, none of which are free.
For parents, again, this goes beyond trivially ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. When even the most cash-strapped families are noting that all their neighbours are ushering their children in and out of tuition and Kumon classes, despite their neighbours also being far from affluent, these families are also joining in and signing up their children.
The ‘game’ to be played with regards selecting a Secondary School in Newham is a hard one, with no rulebook and there may not even be any winners.
Those parents best able to make the effective choices are those who are educated enough to have gone to university and passed through the whole system, literate enough in English to navigate all the paperwork and publicity, numerate enough to understand and interpret the schools’ test data, savvy enough to know when they are being bullshitted, confident enough to approach their primary schools for help, confident enough to approach prospective secondary schools for information, available enough to explore the different schools with their children, wealthy enough to pay for tuition (especially in the 11+ for those considering Grammar Schools and prestigious private schools) and decisive enough to be willing to pull their children out if things go badly.
This limits the number of players to a very small and unrepresentative group.
As schools and as teachers in primaries, we need to be doing whatever we can to help parents and pupils to know the rules of the game, so that our hard work can be built upon effectively.