How Daniel got into the right school

Getting your child into the best secondary school for them is often tough, but when the child is black and a boy, the obstacles can seem daunting. Janet Tappin tells her story
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JULY 1996

Only a few weeks before the end of the school term, but we're determined Daniel's studies won't finish with the last day. We've found him a tutor, at long last, after several frustrating phone calls. Everyone seems to be either going on holiday or they think he can wait until September to start preparing for the secondary school selection tests in January next year. No way - we need to start now. So, his summer holidays will be supplemented with maths, English and non-verbal reasoning.

He says he really, really minds having a tutor, none of his friends have one. (I'm sure that's not the case.) I remind him that he still panics unnecessarily when it comes to maths. And though his English and reading is way above average he'll be competing with others who are as good as and better than him. I also remind him, as a black child and more specifically as a black boy, he must get the best possible education. We know too many black youngsters who are struggling to make something of their lives. They are the products of an education system which has failed them. I wonder what Daniel's chances of success are here? We have thought about sending him to the Caribbean. We could confidently predict that he would emerge from the Jamaican secondary school system with a solid set of A- levels, but the wrench would be too much. Anyway, why should he have to leave? He's entitled to a good education in this country. The risk is, will the school he gets into next year give him that?

AUGUST 1996

Met Sarah at the shopping centre today. She's the mum of one of Daniel's best school mates. She asked me if Daniel's going to take the entrance exams for the secondary schools in Bexley, our neighbouring borough. The closing date for entry is the end of this month. She says it would be great if Daniel went to the same school as Matthew as they've been best friends for so long.

The school she's set her heart on is a grammar. I agree it would be "nice". I'd love Daniel to go to a grammar school, just like I did years ago. But he won't be sitting the Bexley tests. I explain that we're seriously worried about sending him into an area which is known for its British National Party connections. Would the school make every effort to protect him from racist abuse and attacks? And once outside the school gates, what happens then? Sarah says she never thought about it that way and she understands.

Daniel is really disappointed. He says he would stand up to anyone who called him names. I wish it was that simple. The bus stop where Stephen Lawrence tragically died is only a 10 minute drive from where we live. So, as far as we're concerned, Bexley is out of the question.

SEPTEMBER 1996

It's Daniel's last year in the juniors. His primary school years have gone so fast. He says he's worried about being ahead of his classmates because he's had a tutor throughout the summer. One or two have already called him a "nerd" and "swot". He's sitting on my lap - all five and a half stone of him, while telling me this. I cuddle him and tell him that he must never be ashamed of wanting to study hard. It makes me keenly aware of the problems he's likely to face if we choose a school where the work ethic isn't strong. He's a bright child, and I believe he could succeed in any school he goes to. But his success would be despite the system not because of it.

A young black pupil we know, who goes to a local comprehensive, had a really tough first year. He was bullied by his peers who called him a "swot" and a "teacher's pet". Support from the school was pitiful. The bullying had its effect. He began handing his homework in late and started getting lippy with the teachers.

If it wasn't for his mother's determination and her experience as a teacher, he wouldn't have come through this difficult period. He's now taking his GCSE maths a year early. But she's had to work hard to overcome the school's apathy and its resistance to her involvement in her child's education.

It's this continuous fight that we don't want to take on. We want a school which encourages our child's academic abilities, gives him an all-round education and welcomes our involvement.

OCTOBER 1996

It's tiring doing the secondary school open day visits. Sometimes I wonder why we're dragging ourselves around when none of the state schools meet our expectations anyway. At one of the comprehensives we visit, the poor GCSE results are blamed on low-ability pupils. The head says he knew these students wouldn't achieve much when they arrived in year seven. So in year 11 they were given extra lessons in the evenings and weekends to help them with their exams. I can't believe he thinks this was good enough. I ask why, since they had spotted the early warning signs, didn't they start the extra tuition in year seven? It's so depressing. Sarah tells me about another school she visited where Matthew ended up prompting a 16-year-old pupil who couldn't read some of the words in his book. We won't bother to visit that one.

We want Daniel to stay in the borough but we're terrified of putting him into a school where he'll have to fight for his academic survival. Last year the Campaign for Racial Equality released figures which showed that black children are six times more likely to be excluded from school than their white classmates. I suppose we should take comfort from Daniel's excellent end-of-term reports which mean he's unlikely to fall into these statistics. But the risk of exclusion increases if he goes to one of these schools.

NOVEMBER 1996

We've been looking at some private schools, grant-maintained ones and the City Technology College. Danny really likes the CTC. So do we. It has an excellent reputation. Academically it's very good, but what attracts us most is its commitment to producing well-rounded and disciplined children. Daniel will be among students who want to learn and who will be encouraged to achieve their full potential. He's been reading the prospectus every day since it came and he's already picked out all the extra-curricular activities he wants to do if (or dare I say when) he goes there. But first there's an entrance exam and an interview. We're confident he'll do it. So is his tutor.

A parent at Daniel's school says he's worried about the area the CTC is situated in, so he's not going to enter his child - it's a predominantly black area. I tell Daniel that's one of our reasons for applying. He needs to maintain a positive identity of himself. On top of that the school has a good mix of children from black and Asian backgrounds.

We don't want him to spend his secondary school days defending his black identity. I had to, and it was a miserable existence. I explain to Daniel that even though he'll sit the entrance exams for the Bromley schools, we'll use it as a practice run for the CTC. We're reluctant to send him into Bromley because the schools there are predominantly white and while we're sure he would get a good education, the consequences of placing him there could have long-term effects. I remind him of what happened to me.

At the age of 14, my parents moved out of north London's racially mixed community into Hertfordshire. It was a drastic step to take at the time, but they did it because they wanted us - as black children - to get a good education. They sent me and my sister to an all-white grammar. We were the first black children in a sea of 600 white pupils. We got our education, but at a price. My school life was spent either fighting or hiding in the toilets when I couldn't take any more racist abuse. I did make friends eventually, but when I emerged with my A-levels, it took me many years to repair the damage. And it's the consequences of this struggle which we want Daniel to avoid.

JANUARY 1997

Poor Danny, every morning and evening he has to do timed non-verbal reasoning tests, English and maths homework. It's all in preparation for the exams. We've decided on two schools in our borough. One's private, the other's the CTC. They both have tests and interviews later this month. We've still had to put his name down for a local comprehensive. It was done reluctantly, but those are the rules.

Rang my mum in Jamaica to talk through some of my anxieties. She reminds me we mustn't overwhelm Daniel with too much studying. But up till now he's never had to sit a test. Primary school just doesn't prepare him for it. So, we have to.

FEBRUARY 1997

He's got in, he's got in! I can't believe it. He's got a place at the CTC as well as the private school. Daniel and I grab each other and jump around the room shouting - yes, we did it! "Yes, you did it," I tell Daniel. After all, he sat the exams and he answered the questions at the interviews. It was his personality that shone through. He makes me laugh when he reminds me he got John Major's name right as the Prime Minister and Tony Blair as the Leader of the Opposition, but then told the teacher interviewing him the Chancellor of the Exchequer's name was Sinn Fein! "I knew it was Kenneth Clarke, Mummy," he says, "but because Sinn Fein has been in the news so much, I just blurted it out!"

We are so proud of him. It's like a burden has been lifted off our shoulders. We'll choose the CTC, of course. And he'll do well. He says he's aiming for straight As in all his exams. It's a tall order but we're satisfied he has a real chance now of achieving it, if he wants ton

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