Early Years Practitioner and Tiney home nursery leader, Alicia Wilkins, shares her experience of looking for a school for her son, with advice for families and reminding early years educators of all the emotions that parents/carers feel.
Motherhood is certainly teaching me all about the rapid speed of a child’s growth and development. My son was born in 2018, and in the blink of an eye, he is now 4 years old and attending school full time. I had heard it all before: they really do grow fast…
…and here I am, a parent waking up extra early, navigating the morning routine as calm as a pro, but frantic on the inside, worrying if my son has eaten enough breakfast, will he engage with his peers, is his hair braided too tightly, and will we make it to the door without him needing the toilet (which will set us back those valuable extra minutes if we’re running behind schedule)!
So far so good, but I did not think I would be handling this transition as well as I am.
I was that parent who cried in the school playground on my child's first day at school as he kissed me goodbye. My son confidently half galloped/skipped into his new classroom to be the first child on the carpet, enthusiastically waiting for his new classmates to join him. I lingered at the window hoping that he was happy and that we had made the right choice to send him to this school. I clung on to every second, until it was time to leave the playground, and then buried my face into my partner’s chest, my mind full of flashbacks of my son’s toddler years.
That was one of the longest 3 hours of my life! It was only a short day for the ‘settling in’ period, but I wasn't prepared for how it would feel to have a silent house, knowing that this was the start of an actual full time education routine.
Beginning the process
Initially, I was overwhelmed with the thought of “starting over” and choosing a school for my son, because he was happy at his day-care. I felt as though I would be ripping him away from his loving, caring, happy place, where he was nurtured and all of his learning and developmental needs were fully met. I had doubts that any school could match his nursery education experience and I was nervous about the four months I had left to decide between three potential schools. I was in denial and procrastinating on making the big decisions. But I needed to research schools and begin the application process before the final decision date in January.
The school selection was a difficult process to initiate because I still felt relatively new to the area and did not know where to begin, other than research schools I had seen locally on my way to my son's day-care. I had heard great things about the school next to the day-care and had noticed how well resourced the school looked and the celebration of the children's work displayed at the windows. That was an easy choice to consider but I still didn't feel that it was enough to tick the box, because I had fundamental criteria to fulfil…
Thinking about what was important to us as a family
My starting point was thinking about my child's needs, our expectations as a family and finding out what the school's ethos and values were. We decided to not send our child to a private school, and although highly considered, home-schooling was no longer an option. A local school within 20 minutes walking distance with easy access by transport if needed, was what suited us. Having spoken to local parents, we knew we were fortunate to have Ofsted rated ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools within the area.
I have an insight into school ratings because of my experience as a teacher. In my opinion an OFSTED rated ‘good’ school can be a great choice, or a possible better choice, than an ‘outstanding’ school. Whilst choosing schools for my son, I wasn't likely to be persuaded by the ratings to only choose ‘outstanding’ schools.
I have worked in various ‘outstanding’ schools that did not have what I would consider to be fundamental aspects that valued and considered the differences of the children, staff and visitors to the school. For example, doors, classrooms and toilets not accessible for wheelchair users, a lack of representation/celebration of various cultures displayed in the corridors and an absence of books written by Black or Brown authors, or any books that featured Black people.
I understand that there are criteria to fulfil for an OFSTED rating, but in my opinion the observations that I've outlined should be considered important in all schools, not to simply tick boxes but because the school cares and aims to demonstrate a true reflection of the wide, culturally diverse community where all abilities are valued. What would we be teaching our son about our society, by choosing a school that segregates the children's abilities and cultures?
I often think about the child that I once had the privilege to tutor. A bright, enthusiastic, talented child who couldn't access her ‘outstanding’ school's main entrance with her peers because the ramp was too narrow and the double doors were always locked, not providing space for her wheelchair to fit through. She was unable to access certain lessons in classrooms which were based on the above level floors that did not have access via a lift. She could not even gain safe access to the toilets because the accessible toilet was used as a storeroom. Her school experience had a negative psychological impact - as a result of this poor treatment she didn't feel valued and was made to feel different and separated from her peers.
I would advise parents/carers to choose a welcoming school that is child-centred, inclusive and values the children and staff. ‘Whistles and bells’ as they say, can be a distraction, and we can be distracted by the new resources, technology and what's currently trending in education, but we have to go beyond what a school is presenting and ask the questions and look for aspects that will be conducive to the child's needs.
We can gain further insight by talking to parents/carers of children who already attend a school, and if not in person, there are many local online forums to communicate with parents/carers and learn more about the school. If possible, attend a tour of the school or attend the welcome presentation that most schools hold during the deciding months.
The selection process for our son was during a time when access was limited due to the pandemic, therefore I attended a Zoom meeting for one school, a private one to one tour of another school, and a limited capacity meeting in the school hall at another.
Perhaps the Zoom meeting altered my feeling about the school that was initially the first choice because I didn't get the true feeling that I wanted. I wanted to see the environment and observe the children, the resources, and as mentioned before, go beyond what was presented to me.
Through my personal observation, I noticed that the staff and children at the school that we have chosen looked happy and relaxed. Everyone was polite and genuinely welcoming. It was a warm feeling to be there. The school held a presentation in the hall - a collaborative introduction presentation that involved two Year 5 children. They shared their own experience with confidence and were open to questions about the school, revealing through ‘the child's eyes’ what it's like to attend this school.
We chose this school, because during the introduction presentation, I could see through the gap in the curtain that separated the hall and the surrounding classrooms, happy children engaging with their teachers and peers, with a freedom that all children should have. They truly looked as if they wanted to be at school and the staff looked as if they enjoyed their place of work. Of course, the school met our fundamental criteria and the values and ethos are what we expected.
And so the journey of school begins…
Fast forward to the summer term, our son had been accepted, and we were invited to attend the school's summer fair and jumble sale. We were blown away by the community feel, and the woodland area was even better in real life than in the photos on the school’s website. Perfect for our little boy who enjoys being in nature.
Our son absolutely loves his school. He fell in love with his teacher and early years practitioner from the day they came to visit us in our home as part of the introduction to the new school transition. He is free to be himself and I believe that the school is inclusive and values the children from various backgrounds, cultures and faiths.
It's important to choose a school that nurtures the free thinking of children and the freedom that they naturally possess. A school should be a welcoming and embracing place to attend away from home. I now can enjoy the silence at home with a peace of mind that my son is in a safe, caring environment and continuing his excellent start in early years education.