I just got our admissions packet from the Wokingham Borough Council so that I can enrol Kellen in reception (think kindergarten) for next fall. I’ve know this was coming and have been trying to make sense of what our options are and what, if anything, we need to do to make sure Kellen is in the right school. I’ve always just assumed that as long as you are in a good school district then one elementary school is the same as any other elementary school in your area. Patrick went to Cherry Valley in Duvall and I never wondered if Carnation would have been a better fit. Even if I had heard outstanding things about Carnation changing schools would not have been an easy option, moving being the most obvious barrier. So you move into a house in a good district, walk down to your local elementary school, enrol, show up in September. Done. Here in the UK the system is very different and I’m learning that having choices might only end up driving me crazy.
We live in the Wokingham Borough which functions like a county would in the States, and then within the borough there are catchment areas similar to districts. It starts to get more complicated when you realize that different levels in school have different catchment areas. For example, the primary or infant/junior schools have a much smaller catchment then the secondary schools. So we can actually live almost anywhere in the Borough and Patrick would be able to stay in his secondary school but there are many more primary schools that serve smaller areas. So we live in an area that has 4 primary school options, or more specifically 3 primary schools, 1 infant (reception – year 2) and 1 junior school (year 3 – year 5). To complicate things a bit further you can also chose one of the religious schools that serve the broader borough and have additional admissions processes. Parents do their research on the schools then by January 15th you complete the admissions packet sending in your selection of 4 schools in order of preference. They then allocate the available places based on a series of prioritizations like proximity to school, siblings already attending the school, special needs, etc. I got all of this information at a parent’s information night to discuss the fact that the UK is experiencing a baby boom so the borough is actually short places for the 2013 school year. At first I thought it was great, I can research the schools and chose the school that seems to be the best fit for Kellen, but in all reality I assumed the school behind the house would be the frontrunner due to convenience and anyways what’s the difference between elementary schools… I was completely wrong, since then I’ve slowly gotten more and more anxious about the admissions process and lost all perspective on the issue.
Since parents do have more of a choice in what school their kids attend there are regular tours of the schools where the head teacher takes time to speak with the parents. You can also view the school’s Ofsted report to review not only their test scores but also read a report on the overall school quality. I started my own research process by reading the Ofsted reports and decided to visit 3 schools; Farley Hill Primary, The Coombes Primary and Shinfield Infant. Shinfield Infant is the same school Kellen is currently attending, I’ve liked the Nursery program but based on what I read through their Ofsted report and word of mouth I think it would be fine but there are potentially better options. Farley Hill was the first school I went to tour. Based on their Ofsted report I was already sold on the school, they received all 1s and 2s on the quality of education, behaviour, social development, etc. I arrived at the school and found it to be surprisingly small; they only have one class for each grade so only have 30 places for the new reception class. The school itself was amazing; they have additional resources to work with kids who need extra help but also to help push the kids who are excelling. They focus on learning instruments and languages even in primary school. It was almost absurd as 2 of the older kids toured us through their organic garden and explained that the cafeteria only uses locally sourced meats and the school lunches are all cooked from scratch onsite. Their test scores are outstanding and the head teacher was really blunt that parental involvement is expected and that’s what helps their students to succeed. Then I found out that last year they received 150 applications for 30 places. Essentially you have to either live next door or already have a sibling in the school to get a place. I left in awe of the school and trying to figure out how to move closer as soon as possible. The following week I went to The Coombes, before going everyone I had talked to said the Coombes is ‘different’ but no one could explain what they meant. They also had a solid Ofsted report and are fairly close to the house. I was surprised by how large this school was, physically the campus was really big and had fields, ponds, learning areas and even a goat. Going through the tour I started to learn what was different about this school. First off there are no uniforms which is very rare in this area. They also do a lot of their teaching through physical learning, one example the head teacher gave was instead of asking kids to write a descriptive paragraph about a picture of a horse they actually bring a horse to campus learn about horses and then go inside and write about it. They keep the kids very physically active and it is much more of nurture the soul type environment. Another American mom I’ve met compared it to a Montessori. I left thinking that there were so many really neat things about the school but worried about when they did basic things like spelling.
I’ve spent the last month or so with my heart set on Farley Hill, intrigued by the Coombes but somewhat nervous, and feeling like with all of the oversubscription issues we’ll probably end up at a Shinfield Infant expansion classroom and poor Kellen will be going to school in a construction site. Is more choice better? I’m not so sure anymore. Each school really is so different from the others that I worry about making the wrong choice. Jamie of course tries to be the voice of reason pointing out that we are taking about reception not university.