Monday, 30 January 2012

Choosing a primary school

In a recent post entitled "The Parenting Dilema" I said this:-

"I found I surprised myself by selecting a Primary Church School for The Eight Year Old to attend despite us having no faith. Put simply, the school was the best that we visited before making our choice. It just felt like the right place for my son to be. And so, regardless of my previous thoughts about where he would begin his formal education, he now happily attends a Catholic School."

In response, one of the friends left this comment:-

"Interesting that you chose a catholic school, despite having 'no faith'. Were there any good secular schools available? I find the ever-increasing take-over of English schools by church organisations absolutely abhorrent. As The Husband will be able to confirm, we (The Friend and his partner) take our atheism and secularism very seriously. we would be very uncomfortable sending our child to a religious school, but may have little choice in the end. I would be interested to hear about your experiences in this area."

I felt it was impossible to answer this in a couple of lines and so am responding in this post. 

Image borrowed from:-
This is my experience of selecting a Primary School for the Eight Year Old.  I make no claims that my experience is reflective of that of others. And in no way do I suggest that my perspective is a common one.

Five years ago it was time to decide on where we (me and The Eight Year Old's Dad) would apply to for The (then) Four Year Old to go to school - he would have six months in the Nursery class before moving into Reception.    Our priority was to find a primary school (if possible with a nursery attached) that offered a positive experience in terms of the environment being that of a supportive community.  I want my children to have an enjoyable experience of school, to grow as individuals in becoming more confident within themselves and in being open to the world.  If my children leave school with little more than a questioning mind, being capable of reflection and critical thinking, a love of learning,  and an ability to get on with others, then I wouldn't be disappointed.
As a parent I was, of course, also interested in the academic aspect of the schools we would view - the level of teaching provided and the effect of that on the performance of the pupils.  However, I think to make a selection based on that criteria being the priority is a risky business.  I've worked in the Education sector for many years, and, whilst I support the need to have some way of measuring the quality of education providers, in my opinion, the tools used to measure these things can be flawed and the reporting mechanisms can present a skewed picture of reality to the outside world.   For example, if a school is located in what is considered to be a socially poor area then the overall statistics of pupil performance may be skewed for a variety of reasons - and not all of them necessarily negative - without this being truly represented within the reports available.

The only think I thought I was clear on when considering school selection was that I didn't want to choose  a Church School because I don't believe in God and therefore I didn't want the views of others to be delivered to my son as a fait accompli.   This is despite me having attended a Church of England primary school and now, regardless of that early eductional experience, my being an athiest.  Just to pause here for a moment to say that I'm not a fan of the title 'athiest'. I find the term to be a strong one and that 's why I tend to prefer to say 'have no faith' or that I'm a non-believer.  I'm not sure why this is.  I think, that maybe because I have no desire to convince others of my opinions, and because I respect the views of others who do believe in God, then I don't feel the need to label myself in order to 'set my stall out' as it were. Or maybe it's that I simply don't agree with the need for labels for everyone and everything along with the often acompanying stereotyping.

Children's Education Advisory Service (CEAS) logo
Anyway, back to the topic of school selection.  As a result of my being seperated from The Eight Years Dad by the time we were selecting a school we were - at that time - living in two different areas of the City. As such, we decided to look at schools in both areas. Neither of the areas were classed as being up there with the so called 'most desirable areas' of the city.  In theory, it was possible to apply to any school in any part of the City, regardless of catchment area. However, at the time (I'm not sure how this works now)  if you were  not in a particular schools catchment area then you are placed much further down the list when it came to the school accepting pupils - further down the pecking order as it were.  And so, it felt like a big risk to waste one of the maximum three choices, possible on the application form, on a popular, sought-after - and often over-subscribed - school, in a so called 'better area'.

Of the two areas in which we were searching, people would typically class the area in which I lived at the time, as the better choice. I believe people would base this on the perception that more of the people who live there either consider themselves to be - or are aspiring to be - middle class.  The other area - where we now live - is classed as being a 'poorer' area of the City that is less than desirable.  I do not hold with these thoughts.  The 'better area' in many peoples eyes always struck me as being predominatly 'white' and - I say controversially - in my experience, more narrow minded.  The 'poorer area' we now call home, is very culturally mixed and for that reason alone, is more appealing to me.  I don't claim that there aren't issues with living where we do but then I believe there are issues of one sort or another wherever you choose to live and we all have different priorities.

And so, there were potentially six schools on our intitial list to go and view - two of them were Church Schools (which I was reticent about), one in each area.  We visited three of the schools before we knew we had found the school for us.  At no point during this process did I feel that Church Schools were 'taking over' or limiting my choice of non-church schools.  Neither did I find that they were better funded in any way that was obvious.  From my limited experience, I didn't feel that the Church was 'ruining it' for the rest of us in terms of their position within, or influence upon, the English School system or, that other schools were suffering as a result of there being Church Schools.  Personally, I believe the management of the Education System by the Government is doing enough damage all by itself to our schools but that's just a personal opinion of mine.

The first school we visited was in the area where I was living.  It was a non-church school. When we arrived, the office staff seemed surprised, no-one seeemed to be expecting us.  We were given a quick tour of the school by a secretary who couldn't answer many of our questions.  The pupils in the school seemed happy enough but it just didn't 'feel' right to me.  I really couldn't imagine my child going to that school.  It felt overcrowed and for want of a better description 'cold'.

The second non-church school that we visited was located where The Eight Year Old's Dad was living.  This time we were shown around by a member of teaching staff.  The school felt much like the last one although I preferred it in that is was more culturally mixed.  I still wasn't happy though.  Again, the thought of my son going there made me feel anxious even though I couldn't quite pinoint exactly why that was.
Image borrowed from:-

The third, and last, school that we visited was the Catholic Primary School that The Eight Year Old attends.  We were greeted warmly by the Deputy Headmistress who seemed to take pleasure in showing us around the school which she was clearly very proud of.  We were impressed by the fact that she knew every childs name that we came into contact with.  And in return to her saying hello to the children by name, they responded politely, saying hello back to her and to more often than not to us.  We were also impressed by the displays that adorned the walls with the childrens work and the values reflected within these.  The environment was warm and appealing and a real sense of commumity prevailed.  There was, of course, a religious presence within the learning environment but it was a relatively 'light touch' and also seemed to reflect the different cultures and religions of the pupils in attendance.  Half way through our visit, I knew this was the place where I wanted my son to begin his formal education.

I don't know how other Church Schools would compare.  We didn't visit the other Church School on our original list.  I suspect, that without the cultural - and subsequently the religioius - mix that is previlant at The Eight Year Olds school that there may be a stronger sense of 'this is the one truth that we should all believe' that would come through but that's only a theory. 

Also, because of the area in which our selected school is located and where we now live, is considered to be a more socially deprived - financially deprived would be more accurate - then a lot of the assumptions and findings of church schools do not necessarily apply.  For example, reports of middle class families who are not in receipt of benefits or entitled to free school meals (As reported in the Guardian last year) being more likely to gain Church School places is not evident at The Eight Year Olds school.  The mix of pupils and their backgrounds is so diverse that there are no obvious signs of elitism.

Being so impressed and happy at the time with the school that we chose - and still feeling that way now - I can't imagine The Eight Year Old going to any other school.  Rather than feeling that he is in some way being 'brainwashed' to believe in God, I feel that the Religious Education aspect of the curriculum is delivered sensitively and thoughtfully and there is the option to opt out if we so chose.  But we don't choose to.  I believe that in engaging in these lessons, The Eight Year Old is open to perspectives other than my own.  At school he learns about a wide range of religions together with a mix of children from many different religious and cultural backgrounds.  As such, he is developing a broad perspective about the differing views of people with different experiences and beliefs. At home, we talk about the issues involved and about the different things that different people believe in.  I don't know if we would tackle as many of these issues in quite the same way if we had chosen a different school. 
Me and The (then) Five Year Old

I feel that we are giving The Eight Year Old the option to choose his own believes.  Just because I am an athiest doesn't mean that he has to be.  And by attending the school he does, together with my input,  then maybe his mind is being presented with all the options rather than a limited picture of what is and isn't the 'right thing' to believe.  As a 'non-believer', I can see how sending my son to a Catholic school does, in the eyes of some, make me a complete hypocrit.  But you know, with my son as happy at school as he is and with the way he is growing in confidence, then I am a happy hypocrit.

I noticed when reading around some of these issues that on the 'Campaign for Secular Education' website, one of the aims of the campaign is this:-

"Our aim is to have every child educated to the highest standards of intellectual honesty appropriate to their age and stage of development - in local schools where they can mix freely with and socialise freely with children of other races, classes, and creeds."

In my experience so far, the local school attended by The Eight Year Old does indeed allow him to mix freely and socialise freely with children of other races, classes and creeds.  The combined education he receives from school and home, provides him with intellectual honesty appropriate to his age.  I trust that, as things stand, my children will grow and develop into adults who will have the confidence to make their own choices - that are right for them - based on a whole range of knowledge and influences.  And I can't ask for more than that really.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to give such a detailed answer! Any choice of school you make must be on a case-by-case basis and is necessarily a personal one. Church schools can be excellent schools, as I am sure your school is.

    My fundamental problem is still that public money is being spent supporting church-run schools which naturally want to religiously discriminate in their pupil intake and even their staff. I don't think you mentioned any entry criteria (beyond catchment area) for this school - does it favor children who have been baptised, for instance? And how often is a religious requirement for entry a back-hand way of screening out poorer families? I cannot understand why we hand so much influence over state education to church groups. I agree that it is desirable to present every child with the broadest possible exposure to different ideas, religions and philosophies. I strongly believe that a secular education system, rather than one that puts schools in the pockets of different church groups, is the best way to ensure this.

    1. I agree that ideally all schools would operate under equal terms in a secular system.

      As you would expect with a Catholic School, there were selection criteria based around religious beliefs. The Eight Year Old hasn't been baptised though and so clearly this isn't the over-riding issue. The political issue about why influence is given over by the state to church groups is an interesting and complex one. One that I imagine also carries with it huge financial implications. In terms of the education recieved within a church school though, the curriculum is the same as any state school and all schools are measured and monitored for quality in the same way.

      From the range of pupils and families at The Eight Year Olds School I can definitely say that poorer families have not been screened out. We are a very mixed bag which seems to enrich the learning environment.

      We all want to do best by our children, and sometimes, I've found, it isn't possible to do what I think is best whilst still maintaining my ideals. And what I think is the best for my children will win every time.


    2. All of my five children attended a church nursery school, separate church primary school and secondary schools in West London. All these establishments made places available to children from families of no faith or other non-anglican faiths thus providing an urban mix that we were more than happy with and one they certainly would have been unlikely to encounter elsewhere in the UK to such an extent. One of the things that must be born in mind is that many of these schools were originally established and continue to be in church owned and maintained buildings and were a way for the church to reach out to poorer members of the community. Relatively speaking I suppose, in the case of the Borough of Kensington & Chelsea where my children attended school, it could be argued that this is still the case as the majority of the privileged children living in that borough are still privately educated (certain members of the tory cabinet off-spring notwithstanding) However what I and all the parents who chose these schools for their children hold dear is the ethos of the school's themselves which is sometimes elusive in secular schools. Whether we are Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic or card carrying atheist surely we all share the view that we want our children to learn humility, honesty and acceptance of others no matter what their personal beliefs and backgrounds.
      From my own point of view I see no harm or malice in my children have been exposed to some form of spirituality in their school life whether it had been of Christian origin or any other, I believe that it has enabled them make an informed and independent choice based on their own personal experiences rather than never having been exposed to the possibility of a deeper meaning to life at all.
      Elisa Williams (yoga teacher, wife and mother of 5)

    3. Thank you for reading, and for your comment - much appreciated! I think we share a similar perspective. And going through the school system 5 times...I salute you! Jx

    4. My problem is not with the existence of established religious schools per say, but rather that they are increasingly taking over state schools. I frankly find it outrageous that taxpayers money should given to religious groups for any reason at all, let alone for the education of our children. Schools that are funded by the whole of society should, as a matter of course, be open to children from all corners of society.

      It is important to distinguish between atheism and secularism. I am both an atheist and a secularist (and, as it happens, a member of the National Secular Society). I have no problem with calling myself 'atheist' as it distinguishes me from the narrow majority of the UK population that believes in God(s). I am a secularist because I believe that religion should play as small a role as possible in public life. Religious groups should certainly not be providing state services. It's not about cutting children off from religion and spirituality. A secular education would teach children about religion, without teaching them to *be* religious.

    5. Thank you for clarifying - I hold my hands up in that I wasn't clear previously about the definition of secularism.

      Dare I risk the potential opening up of another can of worms and ask your opinion on private schools and foundation and trust schools? Jx

    6. I'd like to think there were many religious secularists, but I've never met any. I suppose the most famous example would be America's founding fathers; Christian men who nonetheless believed in the separation of church and state.

      As for the rest, well, you are pushing me out of my small zone of knowledge. In common with The Husband I am the product of a church foundation school and so run the risk of hypocrisy! I'd be delighted to send our little unborn Darth to a private school if I could afford it. Preferably a boarding school... in a galaxy far far away...

    7. I look forward to discussing this issue with you again in around four or five years time... :-) Hope all is going well with the growing Darth. Jx

  2. I suppose it's not all bad. At least I can look forward to being a persistent thorn in the side of the church school board of governers, PTA, RE teacher...

    1. ...a role just made for you Ash ;-) Jx