Blog entry by Jamie Earnshaw

Anyone in the world

In Diary of an EAL Mum, Eva Molea share the ups and downs of her experience bringing up her daughter, Alice, in the UK. In the latest instalment, Eva reflects on the process of finding a secondary school for Alice. 

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Prequel

Just like every parent, since our lovely daughter's birth, my husband and I had made plans for her future. Plans that, obviously, did not take into account Alice’s own ideas, inclinations and desires. Don’t look at the screen with that scolding face… we all make castles in the air when our children are young, it is just natural to wish them all the happiness in the world according to the way we see it.

Having said that, when we were in Italy, we had already decided that she would have attended either the humanistic or the scientific secondary schools starting in year 9 (the Italian system is different, so children have to make a choice about their future five years in education in Year 8). But our education plans took an unexpected turn when we moved to the UK, and the choice for a secondary school comes two years earlier.

And since we are not anxious parents and leave everything to the last minute (ahahah), we started touring the schools in Year 4. So, we took our lovely little girl (aged 8) to the open evenings of 3 schools in the area, did the school tours, questioned our guides, had Alice take part in all the possible activities, sat and listened through all the Headteachers’ presentations, and went home possibly more confused than before. We looked at the prospectus of each school and then put them on the shelf. In the end, Alice was only in year 4.

We repeated the full exercise in year 5, but with just two schools - the two schools we visited the previous year which we had liked the most. We discussed with Alice these schools in detail and listened to her supporting evidence for both. Once again, the prospecti from the two schools went on the shelf, next to the ones from the previous year. In the end, she was only in year 5…


September 2019

Year 6, here we come! This was the time for us to make this very important decision for Alice’s future. I looked for guidance on Hampshire County Council’s website which had a lot of useful information about the application process. But, I still had a lot of questions: were we in the position to make an informed decision? did we really know what to look for when visiting the schools? should we have only visited the two schools we had liked in Year 4, and therefore re-visited in Year 5, or should we have explored more? It goes without saying that we decided to explore more, so we attended the open evenings of 4 schools. But we didn’t go as tourists this year. My husband and I went with our inquisitive hats on (we nearly took our notepads and question lists out… just to remind you, I was a journalist in my life pre-UK) and a strategy:

1-     Headteacher’s talk

2-     School tour visiting the the departments more interesting to us and Alice (please notice the order, which is not casual): English (me), Modern Foreign Languages (me), Maths (husband), Sciences (husband) and then Food Tech, Music, Drama, Dance, Arts and the Canteen (all Alice’s choices).

The Headteacher talks gave us an idea of the principles guiding the schools. My husband really appreciated the slides with numbers on them (being an engineer, he finds safety in numbers). I looked at the Headteachers’ attitudes and ways of talking to and of the children, their passion, the things important to them; the extra-curricular activities; the pastoral care; and listened attentively to the students’ presentations. I am not sure what caught Alice’s attention, probably her friends in the hall with us. 

Once we had gone through the hardest bit, we enjoyed the tour and were very lucky to have friendly and chatty children taking us around and willing to answer all our questions:

  • Do you like your school?

  • What is the best bit?

  • What is the worst bit? (there is always one)

  • What are your favourite subjects?

  • Are there many bullying incidents and how are they dealt with?

  • How is good behaviour rewarded?

  • Have you made many friends?

  • Do you attend any after-school clubs?

  • What are the extra-curricular activities on offer?

  • How is the food?

  • What subjects will you take at GCSE?

In each department, whilst Alice was doing the activities organised for the prospective students, we spent our time looking at the books, at the learning walls, at the resources, at the revision guides and talking to the teachers. We questioned them on the curriculum, methodology and results. If there were slides showing GCSE results from the previous years, we asked them to break them down for us and highlight any improvements. I doubt they loved us…

From each school, we came home with some good feelings and some grey areas. But at least now we had some information to reflect upon. 

I went to Alice’s current school for advice and guidance. As always, the school reassured both Alice and me, and talked us through our doubts (have I already said how amazing her school is? As a reminder, you can check the previous chapters of this diary). We left still uncertain about what would have been the best option for us, but at least we knew that we were looking at good schools, in terms of Ofsted ratings, academic results and reputation. 

We kept on talking about the secondary school choice for weeks, to the point that we were all sick of it, without reaching any decision. My husband and I had our hearts settled on different schools. Alice was in a bubble because all her school friends would be going to one school, which was next door to her current one; none of her school friends, but most of her dance friends, would be going to our catchment school, but we only hit the 8th admission criterion for that school. 

It was all still up in the air when we received a dreadful reminder from Alice’s school that we were running out of time and God only knew what would happen to late applicants! 

We needed to act quickly, so, on a bright Sunday morning on the 19th of October, I sat down with a nice cup of tea and a piece of paper, and spent my time dissecting the 4 schools. This was the result presented to my husband and Alice:

table

We ruled out school #4 because of transport and school #3 because of the walking distance and the number of friends (much less than in # 1 and 2). 

We were left with two schools, which were equally distant from home and where Alice would have had a good bunch of friends. 

I spoke to all the friends, colleagues and literally everyone I know who had children in these two schools to find out about their perspectives and their experiences and whether they were satisfied with the academic preparation and results of their kids. 

I had more information about one school, because it was the one working closely with Alice’s current one, so I contacted the other school to have an appointment with someone who could shed some light. The meeting was very informative, and I left the school a little less doubtful. 

At this point, the choice was only Alice’s. She had a dilemma (oh, how I wish all grown-ups had these kind of troubles!) because her friends from school wanted her to go to their same school or else…

To help her unravel her thoughts and to opt for one school before the deadline of the 31st of October, we looked at the GCSE offer and #1 had 10 more subjects at GCSE level than #2, including Food Tech and Dance, the ones Alice had always wanted to do (let’s review this point in 4 years’ time). We then looked at facilities, and #1 seemed a much bigger and newer school. Her mind was made up in less than 5 minutes… With my brain boiling after such an elucubration, I sat down at the computer and typed https://www.hants.gov.uk/educationandlearning/admissions/applicationprocess

I logged in and put down schools #1, #2 and #3, in this order, as preferences, and clicked submit. What a relief!

In the whole process, there were some points I really could not get my head around, such as:

  • Why are not all schools offering the same subjects? And for the same number of hours per week?

  • Why do some schools work on a 2-week timetable and some don’t?

  • If a child has a problem on the way to school, can they call the school?

  • If my catchment school is very far away, can I apply to a closer one? If not, can I get any support for transport?

  • If a child has a problem in school, who is the first port of call?

  • Is it possible to choose a specific Foreign Language or is it automatically assigned?

  • Why would some schools allow Alice to take her heritage language GCSE and some wouldn’t?

  • How does the cashless system work and how are children’s biometric information kept and used?

  • Why do some schools take GCSE options in year 9, but some others in year 8?

  • If a child changes their mind on studying a subject, could this be changed?

  • How many subjects should one take at GCSE and who decides them? 

With hindsight, besides the open evenings – which offer a great opportunity to see the full array of the subjects and activities on offer at each school – it would have been very useful if secondary schools had visited the primary ones to present themselves and allow some Question & Answer time to prospective students and their families. Unfortunately, there are some questions specific to each child which aren’t covered at open evenings. This would provide an opportunity for more detailed information to be given to students and their families, particularly those who have a different background from English, who might find it tricky to understand some aspects of the education system in the UK.

It would also be great if primary schools, knowing each child’s strengths and weaknesses, could guide the families by shortlisting a couple of schools that would be the best options for the students, with regards to their academic, social and emotional needs.   


Sequel

We waited patiently (couldn’t do otherwise), anxiously (we could have relaxed more), and excitedly (as always when an event gets closer) for the 2nd of March, the day when our future would be revealed to us. Just to keep us on our toes, the Hampshire County Council Admissions Team sent out an e-mail the week before, to check that our accounts were still active. 

On the 2nd of March, at 7.20 am, I received a text from a friend “Morning, did you get the e-mail?”. I was a bit puzzled… I had not checked my calendar and had completely forgotten!!! And there it was, that shiny little envelope on my screen, opening the doors to the so longed-for secondary school, with all its future rewards and tribulations.


September 2020

First things first: we are very lucky that our children could get back to school at the beginning of September, and a big shout out goes to all people working in education for their hard work, resilience and flexibility. You are all amazing!

Please read carefully: even without this ever-changing Covid-19 scenario, secondary school would have been a completely different universe from primary. Parents, and children, really have to up their games. All is new, all is different, and a lot of responsibilities lie on the shoulders of the students (= of their parents). So far, there has been so much to take in, and sometimes the information overload has been hard to manage. Schools have been proactive with digital technology and the Year 7 Welcome Packs are amazing, super-detailed pieces of work, but sometimes, in such a vast sea of words, the important bits can get lost – I could have really done with a bullet point summary at the end!

Things do get easier along the way, but there are some things that will need attention beforehand:

  • Uniform hunt: the number of bits and pieces needed by our children tends to be infinite, and some of them are hard to find or need to be ordered. Before the Summer break we managed to get hold of some bits, getting slightly bigger sizes to allow for a possible growth spur. We left shirts and trousers to the end of Summer, which was not very wise as we struggled to find the right sizes.

  • School bag tetris: secondary backpacks/handbags would not be allowed as hand luggage!! There's so much that needs to get in there, that Mary Poppins’ bag seems ordinary in comparison: books, pencil case, maths equipment, reading book, lunch box, water bottle, Covid-19 kit (hand gel, mask, tissues), lab coat, apron, earring tape (what?? at least this is small), drama shoes (I didn’t even know they existed)… To fill your child’s schoolbag, you need a lot of patience, their timetables, and the ability to compress solids. 

  • Login desperation: there are so many different accounts parents and children will need to get (and remember) IDs and passwords for. Do not despair!! Get a cuppa and sit down, it might take longer than you expected, but eventually you will get there. You might need more than one sitting to get on all platforms, as info comes your way in different shapes (emails, letters, casual conversations with your children) and times. Maybe just one email with all the links could have saved some time, but I quite enjoyed my cups of tea.

  • Homework (un-)awareness: one month in, and this is still a dolorous mystery to me. More or less, all secondary schools have an app (for ID and password read above) that both parents and children can (should/must) download on their smartphones. This amazing software informs about: timetable, behaviour, achievement and homework. This last tab details subject, deadline, and sometimes there is also an attachment. So, how hard can it be? It wouldn’t, if all teachers uploaded the homework there, and also if all homework could be considered due, and not optional… That would save completing pieces at 8pm the night before it is due, only to find out later on that it was optional. 

As we approach the second month of Year 7, with relief I can say that Alice has become much more confident and aware of how big school works. She has made many new friends already and all her fears of getting lost, and being late to class, have disappeared. She is really enjoying the variety, and challenges, of all her subjects, including Religious Studies, that last year used to give her tummy ache every Monday, and the extra-curricular activities offered by the school. Fingers crossed, we will happily whizz through the first years of secondary school and start our quest for the right college :D  

[ Modified: Monday, 5 October 2020, 4:24 PM ]
 

  
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