• Gabi Gandolfini

Your kid didn't get into the school you wanted: my advice to you

I was in this position last year. Through childbirth, baby starting nursery and many other milestones, I never thought that Joseph starting school was going to be such an event. I can honestly say that the whole thing was one of the most stressful times of my life.

For starters, the whole process is completely crazy. They ask you to choose 4 schools in order of preference. I visited every single school in and around our area (about 10), I read all the OFSTED reports. I read online reviews, I asked on mum social groups, I asked people I know. I drove to each school a few times to figure out the best journeys. I wasn't going to settle for our nearest school, this is my child's life we're talking about so I had to find the perfect fit for him.

After choosing 4 schools, which was hard as there were a few we really liked (we're lucky in our area!), in the application went and the dread started that he would be allocated our nearest school, which is the only school we visited which we knew it would not be right for us. So you can guess what happens next. Joseph is allocated that school, the one that was not even in our list. And many other parents in the same situation as us were allocated that school too, some who lived miles away even. Oh how I cried. For days.

So I decided to follow the appeal process. They basically tell you even before you apply that you will not get anywhere. But I tried anyway and I was called into this hearing which felt terribly formal and scary - me sitting in the middle of large room on a small table and chair with my then little baby attached to my boob with a panel of 4 serious people staring at me asking me the reasons why I wanted my son to move to another school. It seriously felt like I was in court for committing a crime and I burst down in tears there and then, completely overwhelmed. 2 days later I get a letter saying "appeal rejected".

I call up and ensure I am on the waiting lists of the schools of my choice. That's it. Nothing else to be done but to face the fact that Joseph would have to go to that school and pray for a place to become available elsewhere. But when they tell you there are 35 people in front of you on the waiting list... you know you have no chance.

I really tried to look at all the advantages of that school and stay super positive for Joseph's sake. Distance was definitely a pro as we could walk to his school. And the grounds were soooo big. And the Reception teachers seemed great. I won't get into what the problem was with the school as I don't think it's fair to do this publicly and not the point of this post. But I was still massively concerned but trying really hard to not let Joseph pick up on my feelings. And all that with a baby too!

We went to 2 settling days during the summer and Joseph LOVED his school. He really did. He kept asking me every day when he was going to start school as he was so excited. He loved his new uniform. He already made friends during the sessions. It really put my mind at ease that he was so happy. Maybe I was being over dramatic.

Joseph standing in front of a brick wall
Walking to his first settling in session

But do you know what? A mother's instinct is rarely wrong. After he started school, the 5 months that followed were horrendous. There were really good days, and there were some terrible days when I had to drag him out of the car to go to school as he refused to go. No mum can bare the thought of this and I cried every day at drop off knowing I had to leave him there. I was emailing the school every day, I was having long conversations with Joseph about school life everyday. My son, who up until that point was confident and social, became really shy, anti social and didn't want to go to birthday parties as to not see anyone.

Just before the Christmas break Joseph's best friend was allocated a place at another school and that was it, our last bit of positiveness about that school gone - Joseph's amazing best friend and his security blanket was leaving. And his mum and my friend was therefore leaving too. When she told me I felt so happy for her but I also felt so terribly lonely at that point. I remember going to work after the drop off when she told me and having a proper cry at the bus stop.

I called up the in-year team again, registered again into all the waiting lists just before the Christmas break and in the first week of January I got a letter saying Joseph was allocated a place at the school I had originally put down as my second choice, a really lovely little school.

You think I would be happy? I was, but also terrified. Terrified to go through the "starting a new school" thing all over again. Terrified to be making the wrong choice. The few cons the new school has, such as being further away and us having to drive there everyday, became a big thing. I started looking for excuses to not do the move. Crazy! But the fear to make the wrong decision for my son was real. This is not like nursery, which is not mandatory and you can change at will. This is something far more serious. My friend, Joseph's best friend's mum, went through the same and reassured me it would be ok. So I told Joseph he would be moving schools and he said he finally got used to his school and didn't want to move. Oh my God.

I never once, not even now, ever said anything negative about his old school to Joseph. I want him to have good memories of his first school. I enticed him to the new school by saying that they had more clubs (not true) and the choir was amazing etc etc. You can get away with things like that while they are only 4 or 5. He eventually understood.

I was in pieces on his last day. I brought presents to his teachers, who were lovely, and his teacher even cried saying goodbye to him. Joseph however, seemed completely unfazed.

On his first day at the new school I was in pieces again, cried my eyes out dropping him off, but he just went in like a pro. The teachers called me later in the day to reassure me he was fine. I said I knew he would be but they said "we were actually worried about you!". The embarrassment!

Joseph is now thriving at his new school and I know it's a good place for him and it makes me at ease knowing this is where his sister will go too (fingers crossed!), so I shouldn't have the same dramas when her time comes. He still talks about his old school and asks to visit his old friends. We keep it all positive for him and I'm glad he has good memories only. Sometimes he asks to go back to his old school but his new teacher reassured me that's completely normal and happens to almost every child who moves to a new school.

I did make the right decision moving him. But the decision was a hard one to make.

If you are in this position now like some of my friends are, here's my advice to you:

  • A parent's instinct is almost always right. If you think the school is not a good match, for whatever reason, you're probably right.

  • Don't bother appealing unless you closely match the list the acceptable situations they give you.

  • Keep on top of waiting lists like a hawk. They don't tell you this, but you come off waiting lists I believe every term and then you have to apply again. Therefore, your place on a waiting list highly fluctuates as people forget to register, move away etc.

  • Check your place on waiting lists. For my number one school there were still 15 people ahead of us. But for my second there were only 2. Check you places and then choose accordingly which one is going to be your first choice

  • Give your allocated school a go with a positive attitude while you wait. Although a parent's instinct is almost always right, sometimes things are not what we would prefer but they still turn out just fine. There are kids at his old school who are just fine. So you never know! And having a negative attitude towards the school in front of your child is definitely making it harder for both of you.

  • If you see things which are wrong, speak up. I was THAT mum talking to the school all the time. That's ok, your priority is to try to make things right for your child.

  • If you want to move them, do it as soon as you can. It is far easier to do it while they are new in reception than after they are fully settled and have formed strong relationships. Joseph adapted to his new school pretty much immediately and actually he loved all the attention he received being the new student!

  • The allocation system, from all I have seen from personal experience and from people around me, is seriously flawed. So keep on top of them, as I said, like a hawk.

If your child is not in school age yet, then here's my very serious advice to you - start thinking about it now. Me and Paul REALLY wish we had. We moved to this house only 2.5 years ago and we moved to this area partly because of the good schools but we didn't think about catchment areas. If you're thinking of moving house and you have a baby or a toddler, go visit schools now (no, it's not weird, lot's of people do it) and try to move into the catchment area of the school you want. You're still not guaranteed that school, but at least your chances are much higher.

Whatever happens, your kid will be fine. If Joseph was still at his old school, I'd be finding it very stressful and I'd still be trying to move him, but I KNOW he would be fine. Our kids are much more resilient than we think and they can't see the problems with organisations, politics, the governor etc etc. Only we know about these problems.

So keep it positive until your time comes, and good luck x

Joseph and his best friend eating Easter eggs
... and they are still best friends!