Back to school

September. It was one of those peerless late-summer days. The last week in London has been something of a damp disappointment, and I was thinking that this was it, Summer was packing up her bags and floaty dresses and heading further south to flirt with gentler climes. Today, though, the baby-blue sky was bottomless and there was warm sunshine. If I closed my eyes, I was back in California.

The only thing that was spoiling my enjoyment was the thought of going back to school. I dreaded every September for this reason, but this time it’s my six-year-old child who is going to have to negotiate the choppy waters of making new friends and trying to fit in. It’s her third school in three years and I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about all the moving around. I’m good at guilt – read this post to find out why.

Chatterbox with backpack

The Chatterbox on her first day of ‘big’ school, Sept 2010

I’m also fed up with the London school admissions process. To say it’s shambolic is to say that Kim Kardashian is an intellectual. In actual fact, the system seems to verge on the ridiculous. Here’s how it works in London:

  • you list your top schools – usually a total of six – on a form administered by the local council, which gives parents the illusion of choice
  • if you’re lucky you’ll get your top choice (meaning you are literally a stone’s throw from the school) or you live in a less-crowded part of London where there is a better choice of schools that aren’t full. As far as I’m aware, this doesn’t exist.
  • if you’re unlucky you won’t get any and you’ll be put on a waiting list for the schools you prefer; in the meantime, you might be given a school that could be miles from you. Generally, this school will have a medicore reputation or it will be in a rough area (usually it’s both), which is why it has places.

I’ve fallen into the last category. We were unlucky because we arrived in London in July and everyone who was on a waiting list got allocated their places back in May. So we have kind of ended up in no-man’s land. We got none of the choices we listed on the application form and were told that we could accept a school that was about 35 minutes away by foot (I don’t have a car). It also has a below-average reputation.

Meanwhile, the school five minutes from us by foot has an excellent reputation but is more full than a Baptist Church in the Deep South on a Sunday. We’re currently on the waiting list.

But it gets worse. School starts imminently and I’ve had nothing to inform me that my child has been placed on an admissions list for the school we didn’t even want. I call the school yesterday to try to figure out what’s going on.

‘Yes, my love, what is the child’s name?’ the receptionist asks.

I explain the situation carefully, devoid of emotion. We accepted a place at this school in early August but have heard nothing since. We don’t know whether she’s been allocated a place or not. School starts in two days and I don’t know whether to show up.

‘My love, the admin staff aren’t here today, but I’ll try to find someone who can call you.’

I don’t know whether the receptionist’s tactic of using terms of endearment is to keep me from shouting obscenities. I hang up.

No one calls back. Why would they? I call back again this morning, the day before school is due to start.

‘Oh yes, my love, I spoke to you yesterday. The admin person is now on a training course and our computer system is down. Maybe you should just show up tomorrow morning and speak to her in person.’

Helpful? Not really. In the meantime, what do I tell my child? You might be going to school tomorrow, you might not. You might have to walk into a classroom with a roomful of kids who already know each other. You might be the only one without a uniform.

I try not to get into the whole US vs UK thing too often, because I know it’s useless. This is a different country and it’s better to adjust than to complain. I feel like venting, though. In the United States I would not have had this problem. My mother works at a school in California and all the admin staff return the week before school starts, precisely because there are people like me, who move into a new area in the summer.

Last year when I moved to California in the middle of summer, the school admissions process was straightforward. The admin staff helped me wade through all the forms I needed to fill out before the first day.

How is it possible that, in the UK, no one shows up until the day of the new term and no one can tell you if your child has been given a place? Seems crazy to me. Is it too hard to show up a few days early or are budgets really stretched that tight? I don’t know. Forget trying to ask the local council. It’s like trying to get a straight answer about human-rights abuses from a ruthless dictatorship.

So I give up. I don’t think I will take my child to school on her first day. She will just have to cope with showing up sometime this week or maybe next week. I’m feeling reckless.

I’d be interested to know if anyone in London has had this experience with the admissions process to primary schools. Anyone care to vent frustrations?



Filed under British life, motherhood, transitions, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Back to school

  1. scribbleofhappygoluckygal

    Aww.. she’s looking cute:)

    • Yes, she was pretty excited that day. She doesn’t seem quite so excited about the prospect of school now.

      • scribbleofhappygoluckygal

        HHAHHAHAAAA…:):) same thing here with my son..!!! as per him.. “I small boy, I no go school,I watch only TV “..!! ROFL..!!

      • If I let her, my child would also watch TV all day. She doesn’t move when it’s on. Thanks for following my blog. I like hearing from people in other parts of the world. I’ve been to Kerala, India, which I read is where you’re from. It’s lovely there.

      • scribbleofhappygoluckygal

        The same with my son:):) Really?? u had been to Kerala..?? wow..!! yup Iam from there.. and so happy that u liked the place..:):)

  2. As you know, John hasn’t got to that stage yet. On the other hand, I’m so impressed with how much she has changed in two years…so cute!

  3. That sounds really frustrating. I fear we are headed in the same direction, since we have no earthly idea where we will be when the boys have to start school so we will not be able to be on waiting lists. I don’t think the situation is that different in NYC or Los Angeles. I think it’s only easier in the true suburbs, like Westchester County and Fairfield County, which have more tax money and less pupils at the public schools. We are finding preschools (private) booked here, in Dublin in a recession…

    • The whole thing is beyond a joke. The worst part is that it’s all administered so poorly – see my update. At least the schools in New York and Los Angeles probably would open a few days early to deal with problems such as mine. Here, they open the day before. Clearly, it’s not nearly enough time to sift through mountains of paperwork.

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