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Blog Post In: Education News

D-Day for parents: does it pay to game the secondary school system?

Posted in: Education News Published: March 2nd 2015

More than half a million children are due to find out where they have a secondary school place. Some parents have gone to extreme lengths to get their children into the best schools

Failing secondary schools placed on list of shame

Monday is not just a regular weekday for parents of 10- to 11-year-olds across the country. Anxious mothers have circled March 2 in red, are counting down the days, and plan to wake at 6am to finally receive an answer to their prayers. While those without children are blissfully unaware, D-Day is looming for those parents with an eye on the secondary school prize.

Monday is National Offer Day, when more than half a million children will learn if they have been offered a secondary school placement. Although parents are allowed to write down their top six preferences, there’s no guarantee that their children will be given a place at one of those schools. This year, an estimated 100,000 children won’t get into their choice of secondary school.

Faced with this education lottery, parents employ extreme techniques to try and get their children into schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Tamsin Kelly, mother of thee and editor of the parenting, says that those who live near to a good school are given priority, and wealthy parents can play the system by moving to desirable school catchment areas.

“I know someone who bought a house in Brighton while keeping her home in London and applied to schools in both areas. She got the best school in Brighton and moved there as a result,” says Kelly. “Another mother rented a house close to the school for £20,000. But the bands for each catchment area change each year, and it turned out her child would have qualified with their old house.”

Even parents who move can still encounter problems. Belinda White, who’s waiting to hear about her son’s secondary school on Monday, says that a close friend moved into a tiny flat next to a top school in order to get a place. “Once term started, the other parents realised that they’d conned the system and got really pissed off.”

Others decide that it’s not worth uprooting their family for the sake of a school, and instead stump up exorbitant amounts on a tutor. Alistair Fraser is waiting to hear if his daughter, Ellie, will be accepted into a nearby grammar school. The family live in Sussex - which doesn’t have grammar schools - but have put Ellie forward for a selective school in the neighbouring county of Kent. As they live far away, Ellie had to secure a particularly high score on the 11 plus exam to even be considered.

“Sussex primary schools aren’t geared towards the 11 plus, so students aren’t coached like they are in Kent,” says Fraser. “We put Ellie in for a lot of extra coaching, gave her past papers, and employed a tutor, which was quite costly. But it was absolutely essential, we couldn’t have just stuck her into the exam and expected her to do well.”

The pressure of exams has caused considerable stress for both Ellie and her parents, not least the dramatic rise in the level of household shouting. If Monday turns into doomsday, however, they’re prepared to fight the system.

“There are appeals,” says Fraser. “From what we’ve found out from online forums, you just keep appealing.”

Parents must prove their religion to get their kids into church schools

If neither grammar school nor moving house are an option, then there’s one final hope for anxious parents: get on your knees to avoid the fees. Church schools require proof of religion, and so parents with just the hint of a religious upbringing must increase their Sunday attendance in order to gain a place at a prestigious church school.

“These schools require baptism certificates and recommendations from your local vicar or priest,” says Kelly. “There’s a spate of late christenings at nursery age when parents realise they need the documents. In some extreme cases in London schools you get a point system for ‘how religious’ you are, so you might get more points for helping with the coffee or counting the collection.”

But even devout prayer and regular church attendance is no guarantee of a school placement. And after two years of church attendance for the sake of an education, parents are often furious when their plans fall flat.

Belinda White says that, although she has her sights on one particular Peckham school for her son Dylan, she has purposefully disengaged from worrying about the process.

She says one parent friend was casually racist about White’s chosen comprehensive, complaining that the kids outside the school gates “are very black”.

“She said she wouldn’t want to send her children to a school where they’d be a minority. I’ve stopped speaking to her now and avoid her when I see her. The whole process can bring out a very nasty side in people.”

And although parents worry that the wrong choice of school will mean they’ve failed their child, White says that a school cannot singlehandedly determine a child’s life.

“I went to a private school with my sister, but while I was head girl, my sister decided to go off the rails and fail her exams. We were at the same school with the same parents and same upbringing, but at the end of the day, it’s down to the child,” she says.

Cold comfort to parents waiting for news on Monday.