This month we got our letter through from the Local Authority informing us that we needed to choose a school for Goblin by January*. I have been trying to stay ahead of the game, so I already emailed all the local schools in the summer asking when they were holding open days, school tours, or when we could visit - only one replied (not a good start).
After some effort searching their websites and phoning them we eventually managed to discover when the visits were taking place and book ourselves onto them. (Apparently most of them spread the word through local nurseries - seriously unhelpful if your child goes to an out of town nursery or is home educated). In the last fortnight we have visited many schools.
I realised I wasn't sure what I was looking for from a visit. I've seen quite a few friends on Facebook asking what questions they should ask and what they should be looking for when visiting schools. In fact I have posted the same question myself on Taming The Goblin's FB page. But I've realise this is not a 'one size fits all' question. Every child is different and what suits one child may not suit another. What one parent is looking for in a school may not be what another is searching for.
It took me a few visits before I was able to express in words what I was looking for. It turns out I want a school that recognises my child's individuality, and is willing to work with it rather than change it to fit their own rigid school structure. I want a school that offers creative outlets, lots of outdoor opportunities, and a caring rather than punitive discipline approach. I want a school that allows Goblin to develop at a pace that suits him, and an environment that encourages and fosters his curiosity and develops a life long love of learning. (Oh and the moon on a stick while you're at it!)
The trouble with some of the schools we visited was the approach at reception was completely different to the approach to teaching and learning in the rest of the school. So while I would probably have been happy sending Goblin to any of the reception classes, as they were all play based with free flow between indoor and outdoor, there was a radical shift between approaches at reception and Y1. And Goblin isn't only going for a year, he is likely to be there until he is 10 years old, so I need to buy into the whole school approach not just think the reception class is cute.
For me the schools that appealed were the ones where this shift between reception and Y1, 2 and on, wasn't so extreme. Where the children were still able to move around and weren't tied to their desks for long period of time. And where the adult to child ration was high enough to allow different groups to break off and tackle things in different ways without it being deemed disruptive.
(NB: If you go into a class and there are lots of adults, ask why they are there. In one school there was a policy of having one teacher and three class room assistants. In another school there were 4 adults, but it was one teacher, one teaching assistant and two learning support assistants - learning support assistants are there to help specific children with statements of special educational need, so they are not part of any guaranteed ratio of adult to child).
Other things that helped me assess whether the school would be Goblin compatible included their discipline approach, how they tackled the state mandated curriculum and their art work.
Discipline was an interesting topic - one school had a traffic light system where a child who misbehaved had to place their photo on a red or amber rectangle (while the rest of the class were in green). The public shaming did not appeal. By contrast the school we really liked had a positive reinforcement approach where each child moved up a thermometer, they could not be moved down, but they could stay where they were if they misbehaved. At the end of the day there was 15 minutes free time, but those who hadn't managed to reach the top of the thermometer spent some of that free time practicing the skill that had led to them failing to reach the top - thus helping them reach the top the next time. Technically they were very similar approaches, but the language that was used around the approaches betrayed the clear difference in behaviour management.
Curriculum was quite an eye opener. One deputy head said, "I wish we could let the children spend more time outdoors but the curriculum is so full". Where as another school adapted their lessons to allow for teaching outdoors in different subjects including maths, history, PE, etc. This school also asked for the children's input - for example the curriculum mandates that kids learn about the Romans, but it doesn't say how or what they need to learn. So this school asked the kids what they'd be interested in knowing.
I scanned the walls for art work as I visited the schools. In one school the art work clearly displayed the children's unique creativity with different pictures, styles and approaches. In another 10 identical pictures of the same thing, using the same colours and the same lay out were displayed on each display board. It was very neat and attractive to the eye, while the other display was more messy and haphazard, but the messy one for me showed a school that embraced creativity.
In one school I got the impression the head teacher had a clear educational philosophy they were following, and their school, teachers and children were bought into that. In another school I questioned whether the head teacher would even understand what the term meant. That school appeared to be teaching by numbers, where they felt driven by the state curriculum rather than adapting the curriculum to fit their own educational goals. Hublet described the school as having a discipline policy that they were trying to crowbar education into. But the school that scared me the most was the one where the children didn't make a sound and the teachers whispered in the corridors. Possibly some parent's idea of heaven, but it made me want to run screaming for the hills.
What I wanted was to walk into somewhere and feel that Goblin would fit in, that he'd feel safe and happy and that he'd be allowed to be his rather busy, and excitable self. We found that school, but we aren't in the priority area for it. And here is where the main problem lies. While we are led to believe that we have a choice of where our child goes to school, the vast majority of kids will simply be placed in the school nearest to them regardless of the preferences of the parent. For some of us luckier parents, private schools or home schooling are options which give us a further choice outside the state system. But for many that isn't an option, and they are left with a school that they may not feel suits their child at all.
For now, its a waiting game.
*The letter did mention that we have the choice to homeschool but failed to point out we weren't legally required to inform the local authority if that is our choice.
Some great reads from last week included
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