The Great School Dilemma

Flea in school uniform Flea’s a late Summer baby.

In some ways, this is a good thing – birthday parties will always be cheaper because I don’t have to invite the whole class, for starters. But it also means she’s going to start school in three weeks. Good grief – she hasn’t even turned four yet!

I’d originally planned to send Flea to a Montessori school but that idea was scuppered when we moved – potentially subversive educational systems are actually illegal in Lytham, so I checked out the local state primary.

I’ll start by saying it’s a good school. And if you’re a fan of God, it’s possibly even a great school. But there are 35 kids in the reception intake this year, and the reception class is open plan with the year one class – meaning two teachers and 68 kids sharing a kind of small, dark, poky space.

I can’t help but think if you’re four and a couple of weeks, this is quite intimidating. So I met with the head and explained my concerns: Flea is very young, she lacks confidence in new situations and she’s also a big sleeper – she still needs at least 14 or 15 hours a night. So perhaps she could start part-time for a term, or four days a week? 

No dice. Full-time or forfeit the place. Oh, and also: “All children are tired when they start school. Give it a few months, she’ll adjust.”

I checked out another school a little further away. Here, there are 10 children in the reception class, with one teacher and one nursery nurse. They’re more than happy for Flea to take a day off when she needs it, or to leave early if she’s tired. There’s a dedicated playground for the reception class with its own equipment and lawns.

I met with the head who said: “Our job is to make your child happy and give her a good start. Whatever she needs, that’s what we’ll do.”

Of course, the second school is a fee-paying school.

After weeks of agonising, I made the decision to send her to the private school – the upside of being a summer baby, it turns out, is that Flea gets a nursery grant for another year, which will help towards the fees.

But I still wish the state system could have been a bit more flexible.

I hadn’t planned to put Flea into a private school so young,  and I’ve listened to enough Billy Bragg records to know that private education is generally considered to be A Bad Thing. But it’s hard to hang on to your principles when you’re putting your child into a classroom with 60+ kids and two over-worked teachers trying to keep up with a National Curriculum and several hundred government initiatives each term.

What do others think? Are all schools so inflexible?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 13th August 2009 / 3:38 pm

    It’s good that you will get a grant towards her fees.
    My son starts pre-school in November when he turns 3 (I was expecting him to go in Jan but they said nope, we have a place in Nov).
    He’ll be going to the local primary, which doesn’t have a sparkling OFSTED report. None of the schools in our catchment area do. I can’t drive either, so I really don’t have much choice.
    I think you have to make the most of the opportunities you have an if private school is a viable option for you then that is great. Doing what you think is best for your child can only be a good thing.

  2. Just a Mum
    13th August 2009 / 4:01 pm

    My DS1 only went mornings for the first two terms of school, which I think was much easier on him – he got to make friends and settle in without being exhausted the whole time. Isn’t that an option for Flea? That’s a shame.

  3. Mandy22
    13th August 2009 / 4:32 pm

    Our DS is a late August birthday too. He started school aged 4 and a few days last Sept as our local primary only does one intake. Yes, he was shattered as it was the full 5 days a week from the start. He also got very tired towards the end of each term.
    However there was a lot of learning through play,’child-initiated play’ and outdoor activities. If the child has been to a good preschool the transition is reasonable.
    Our DS has made friends and done OK. I feel he would really be having to play catch up if he hadn’t started until the Easter.

  4. 13th August 2009 / 5:00 pm

    Rosemary is also an August baby which, for her, is a good thing. Apart from some sitting still issues, she’d be ready for it now, it seems.
    She goes to playgroup at the school round a corner, which we were assuming would be where she would go to school, but recently found out that there are already 10 siblings and only 16 spaces, so there’s certainly no guarantee she’ll get to go there.
    We don’t drive, so the next closest is a larger primary school, with two classes of around 32 for each year. It’s a decent school, with a wide ranging intake, but I was somewhat concerned about the large classes, too.
    However, a friend of mine, who had the same issue and ended up driving her eldest to a very small village school instead of this big school, is now having issues with the fact that it is such a small school. She’s finding that when her children fall out with their friends, there’s nowhere else to turn to where, at a big school, you can move around friend groups. She’s now considering moving her children to a bigger school, where they know lots of children already from their after-school activities.
    So… in light of her experience, we’re trying to chill out a bit about it all. We’re going to go and visit the closest three schools next term, including the Catholic one (though I really can’t imagine any situation where I would choose that, as we’re very much not religious) and see what we think. We might well end up going for the big school after all!
    All that said, I do believe is confident and sociable enough to be happy at pretty much any schools. If she had a different personality/outlook I’d certainly be more concerned. And I would look at all the options, even though the idea of private education makes my Labour-voting toes curl. But, if it were necessary for my child to feel happy and comfortable, I would do private, church school, home ed, and possibly even moving house.

  5. Sally
    13th August 2009 / 6:11 pm

    @Insomniac Mummy – thanks for that, and hope your son enjoys his pre-school!
    @Just a Mum – no sadly, it’s five full days or nothing, which seems really harsh. That’s what puts me off – if they could be a bit more flexible, I think I’d have gone for it.
    @mandy22 – thanks, that’s great he settled in. It just seems sad there’s no flexibility to take account of different children when there’s a single intake and it’s 5 full days from the get go – at this age, a few months can make such a difference to the experience they have at school. But I’m glad your little one is thriving!
    @Coding Mamma – Yes, I see what you mean. The small class size is interesting – I chatted to the head of a v small Montessori school about this and her take was that small classes encourage children to resolve differences more quickly, which I think makes some sense.
    For me, it’s exactly as you say – I’m thinking about Flea’s personality – she doesn’t like big groups, she does need a lot of one-to-one coaching, and her confidence is very easily knocked – but because she’s very well behaved, I can easily see her being overlooked in a big, rowdy class.
    But, yes, my toes are a-curling.

  6. 13th August 2009 / 6:23 pm

    Good grief, 68 children between two teachers is a huge amount. I work in a mixed year 1 & 2 class with 34 pupils, but there is one teacher and two teaching assistants, and between us we just manage to keep everyone covered.
    At the end of the day you know your own child best, and you have to make difficult decisions sometimes based on what is available. I hope she enjoys her new school.

  7. Happy Mum
    13th August 2009 / 8:24 pm

    I haven’t reached that stage yet, E being just 2 1/2 yrs old although I am forced to be worried about this by the system. given your situation I think that I would have made exactly the same decision. I hope she will love her new school.

  8. 13th August 2009 / 9:00 pm

    I so understand your feelings and one thing as a mummy we all want to do the best for our children. We relocated back to the North east from Berkshire, when our two were tiny and our local primary will have a reception class of 80, which is acutally going to be split into three classes with each having a teacher and an assistant.
    DS1 starts in September, you would think this is an inner-city school, but you would be wrong – it is a rural school and takes children from all the outlying villages.
    We are lucky in that they are very child focussed and would be more than willing for the flexability, infact they did half days for my neighbours child who like Flea wwas only just 4.
    We dont have an alternative choice of private school within a drivable distance, but we both discussed this and said that we would move to keep our children happy.
    Private or not, what matters is that my children are happy, they can not possibly learn and grow in an enviroment that doesnt nuture that.
    DS1 has had a wonderful year at the Preschool attached to the reception class, he has cherised every minute, ran in and never wanted to leave. We feel blessed that he is settled and only hope that the transition to Reception is a good and also that the start of preschool for his younger brother in September will be a good.
    Good Luck

  9. 13th August 2009 / 9:17 pm

    Crikey – poor you. Totally understand your concerns. Renée is an August baby too (turns 5 tomorrow as it happens) so when she started Reception last year she was only just 4 – same as Flea. However, although it isn’t a Fee-paying school it is a church school so I don’t know if that made a difference. What they did was separate the class into three groups (Winter, Spring and Summer babies). They made the Winter babies (the ones who were nearly 5 already) start on 5 full days and the Spring and Summer babies start on 3 days. At Christmas time, the Spring babies had to attend for 5 days and the Summer babies were given the option of either attending 5 full days or continuing as 3 days until Easter whereby they asked for the whole class to attend 5 full days. I think this was the perfect option and by Christmas Renée had settled in so well that she actually asked to go for 5 full days. I can totally understand your predicament – and I probably would have done the same as you – especially with nursery grants for the first year (and also because Flea is your only child so you won’t have the worry of having to pay two or more school fees which I think would be a lot of people’s main concern). You want what’s best for your child and by the sounds of things, you’ve chosen what’s best. Try not to worry about your decision.. x

  10. 13th August 2009 / 10:58 pm

    We’re very lucky. Amy goes to a state school with only 40 kids in the whole school. There are 8 kids in her class with 1 teacher and 1 teaching assistant.
    I doubt it will stay open long after the tories get in. But for now we’ll take it.

  11. Sally
    13th August 2009 / 11:34 pm

    @notSupermum and @happymum – Thanks, I’m hoping she’ll have a great time, especially because we’ve just found out 2 of her best friends, Charlie and Max, will be in her class!
    @MadHouse – yes, it’s the lack of flexibility that put me off as much as the class size. I just felt she was too young and not assertive enough to thrive in that environment. I was much bolshier as a child (and as an adult!) so I don’t think my parents would have worried in the same way.
    @Maternal Tales – that sounds like a perfect solution – wish Lytham would do something like that! Oh, and Flea and Renee have the same birthday! Spooky.
    @Dan – wow, that’s amazing, lucky Amy!

  12. 13th August 2009 / 11:53 pm

    Oh, that sounds so terrible. I think you’re doing the right thing. If the public system provides such a terrible start, she’s lucky to be able to go to the other.
    I’ll not annoy you by going on about the wonderfulness of the system over here just now. (Perhaps another time. 🙂 )

  13. Sally
    13th August 2009 / 11:58 pm

    @Mwa – thanks.
    To be fair the school itself is good, and I hear really nice things about it. I just don’t like the inflexibility – in busy schools here, they often insist on ALL children attending full-time regardless of the individual child’s needs. That’s what’s so frustrating.
    Feel free to pop back another time with the “wonderful” stories, though 😉

  14. 14th August 2009 / 12:49 pm

    My daughter is a July baby and I worried about her starting school at 4. She started in the nursery attached to the school and did mornings.
    When she started in reception full time last year she was tired but by Xmas she was in the swing of things. At 4 she wasn’t as competent with some of her writing/reading as her just turned 5 classmates. However, she’s caught up and bypassed some of the older ones so I forsee no problems now. I remember the anxiety of wondering if it was the right thing to do, but now I’m happy with the decision we made.

  15. Sally
    14th August 2009 / 9:04 pm

    @Laura – thanks for commenting. I don’t worry at all about the academic side of things at this age, although Flea is discouraged easily when she can’t do what other kids can do so I think she would worry more than me. Sigh.
    But it’s good your daughter settled in well – I think the right school is the key, regardless of the child’s age.

  16. 17th August 2009 / 1:51 pm

    Sounds like you’re doing all you can to make the right decision for your little girl.
    Remember that any child’s first and foremost teachers are their parents, as they know them best, and also know what will be the best learning environment for them.
    It does seem a shame that the local primary school is so large and inflexible. Infact it sounds like they are maybe stretching the rules a little by having 68 children with only 2 teachers.
    I’m surprised they are able to get away with this as, at this age, it is usually 30 to a class with at least one classroom assistant. (When my boys school ended up with 31 in one class then they were legally obliged to hire another assistant.)
    Also if a child is still under 5 then parents have no legal obligation to send them to school. With this in mind, most schools I have come across can be flexible in letting littlies do just mornings, or only 3 days or whatever until they are more settled, or after their fifth birthday.
    Anyway, hope your choice turns out for the best. It sounds like a great educational environment.
    Cheers, Jo

  17. 21st August 2009 / 11:46 am

    I’m disappointed that your local school were so inflexible. I think you made the right choice to go with the private school.
    S is 4 in October and going into a class of 9 (for nursery) so I am really pleased. He is also doing mornings. I find it strange that a state school is making 4 years olds go full time!

  18. Kim
    24th August 2009 / 9:35 pm

    Sally – a bit puzzled. One of the first things the Labour Govt did was to make it illegal to have more than 30 children in an infant class. There is very little flexibility on this. So it sounds as if local state school is breaking the law, unless they have very exceptional circumstances.

  19. Sally
    24th August 2009 / 9:43 pm

    Hi Kim
    As far as I’m aware (and this is through the Mummy grapevine) all the infant schools in Lytham have a reception intake of 35 this year, one school has 36. Even so, four children in the town don’t have a primary place and will have to go out of town.
    I guess what they’ll do is take the surplus kids and put them into year one, and then take surplus kids from year one and put them into year two – and presumably they keep going until they balance the books?