Parenting matters: A testing time to choose a school

The pressure is on for parents and children in the cut-throat world of education. By Maureen O'Connor

Educational anxiety in the maternity ward is not exactly a new condition. Many private schools tell tales of boys' - yes, usually boys' - names being put on the waiting list even before they are safely delivered and their gender confirmed. But there seems little doubt that parental anxiety about schooling is becoming more acute and that the condition is spreading.

Successive governments and educational institutions have also racked up the pressure over the last decade or more. As more children and young people have gained qualifications at 16, 18 and at university, anything less than an A* at GCSE, an A at A-Level, or a First or Upper Second at university has come to be regarded as "failure" in some families and schools, and in businesses seeking recruits.

There are two major factors which concern parents in the cut-throat world of education: the choice of school available to them, and the standards achieved by the schools their children may have to go to. For those who can afford private school fees the dilemmas are not so acute because the options are wider, although pressure on 11- and 13-year-olds entered for the entrance exams to some independent schools is extreme. Some private school heads talk of academic "burn-out" at the age of 12 amongst children who have been pushed too hard.

The main choices to be made, apart from the private/state school decision, which for most families is largely dependent on income, come at the pre- school stage: at the age of four, should it be a play-group, nursery school, or (increasingly) a place in a primary school reception class?

The next major choice comes at the age of seven for families choosing the prep school route; and at 11, when a secondary school has to be chosen for most children in the state system, and for many girls in private education. Boys private secondary schools often recruit at 13. For those seeking selective education, either private or state, "choice" will be circumscribed by the results of entrance exams for individual schools.

The standards that help parents make choices are always difficult to judge. But in fact English and Welsh state schools are now unique in the scale of the assessment which is imposed upon children during the compulsory period of schooling, on the assumption that regular testing helps to raise standards. With most four-year-olds and many three-year-olds already in education, from this year regular assessment will start with "base-line tests" at the age of four. These are intended to inform reception class teachers of what children can do before they start their formal education. At the same time, the Government is planning to introduce what it calls "Desirable Learning Outcomes" for children at the end of their Reception year.

These moves have sparked off a fierce debate about the nature and quality of nursery education and about the correct time for children to start formal learning. The UK is already out of line with most industrialised countries in starting compulsory schooling at five rather than at six or, in some countries, seven.

Headteachers running highly regarded nursery "centres of excellence" have complained to the government minister responsible for early years education that some children will suffer unnecessary pressure and be made to feel failures at nursery age if the curriculum becomes too prescriptive. They claim that the best approach for three- and four-year-olds is based on learning through activities and play, which is the preferred approach in many other European countries, some of which perform much better educationally than the UK.

This leaves parents of young children in a dilemma. School is not compulsory until five, but many primary schools prefer children to start earlier than that in a nursery class or, increasingly, in a reception class. Parents anxious about obtaining a place at a particular primary school complain that they are being pressured into sending a child to full-time school earlier than they believe is good for them. The Literacy Hour, intended for five-year-olds and older children, may well be unsuitable for four- year-olds.

Once in primary education, the emphasis is on literacy and numeracy between the ages of five and 11. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has just confirmed that the revised National Curriculum will endorse the Literacy and Numeracy Hours for children in state primary schools, with other subjects playing a lesser role. But the Government's committee of inquiry has just counselled against neglecting the arts and humanities subjects if children are to grow up truly educated and creative.

National Curriculum Assessment (formerly known as SATS) at seven in English and maths, and at 11 in English, maths and science, enables parents to consult the league tables to see how children in particular schools have fared. Critics of the publication of results complain that the raw scores take little account of children's social background, which is known to affect educational performance. There are also fears that the threat of public humiliation may lead teachers to pressure children on the narrow range of skills tested which may not be in their best interests long term.

At secondary school level the pressure hots up, with National Curriculum Assessment at 14, GCSE at 16 and A-level at 18, with all results in the public domain and schools under great pressure to achieve high levels of good GCSE and A-level grades. At this level there have been complaints that the emphasis on good grades mean that border-line candidates are targeted at the expense of no-hopers, and that selective schools ruthlessly cull children who are less likely to do well before they enter the sixth form. The method of scoring GCSE results has been altered this year to take account of all passes, not just the best grades.

Parents are provided with more information about schools through the Ofsted inspection process, which publishes reports on state schools on a four-year cycle. Schools which are regarded as "failing" by Ofsted face a two-year process of "special measures", and can ultimately be closed if they are not deemed to have improved.

Given all this information, parents have used their right to choose schools to devastating effect, although it is not clear that the new freedom to choose had resulted in more families gaining places at the schools of their first choice. Pressure for places at "successful" schools, which inevitably include most selective schools, both private and state, as well as comprehensive schools with the advantage of a middle-class catchment area, has intensified. Some children in London are being entered for separate entrance exams for five or six schools in the private or the grant-maintained (now Foundation) sectors.

Increasing selectivity in the state sector in areas like Bromley and Hertfordshire, encouraged by the former Conservative government, has meant children failing to obtain admission to any school in their own locality while children from further away are accepted. Conversely, inner-city schools in areas like Hackney and Islington have found it increasingly difficult to recruit able children, setting up a spiral of decline.

It is too early to judge whether the government's new arrangements for admissions to state schools, and the option of parental ballots on grammar schools, plus extra help for inner-city schools, will make any difference to the growth of a clear "pecking order" of schools in many areas, or make schools more attractive to middle-class families.

All of which leaves parents of children just starting out in the educational race with difficult choices to make. The only consolation is that the research evidence shows that children from homes where they are supported by their parents and encouraged in their school work will tend to do well which ever actual institution they attend.

CHILD ASSESSMENT:

THE FORM CARD

l Base-line Assessment: Novice Hurdle for four-year-olds

l National Curriculum Assessment 1: first outing in the National Curriculum Levels stakes for seven-year-olds

l Prep School Entrance Exams: major event for colts and fillies

l National Curriculum Assessment 2: with Level 4 in English, maths and science as the prize, and Government targets to meet, there is real pressure on the runners now

l Common Entrance Examination: time to sort out the possibles from the certainties in the private sector

l National Curriculum Assessment 3: try-out for runners and riders for GCSE

l GCSE: the knacker's yard for those still trailing, for others nothing less that straight A*s at the post is expected

l A-levels: breeding tells, as the schools with the most favoured entry (middle-class and preferably female) take the prizes every time and move on to the Gold Cup universities

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