Jayne Dowle: Best not to choose school because bus stops nearby

South Yorkshire students are due to get their GCSE results today
South Yorkshire students are due to get their GCSE results today
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I WAS talking to a mother the other day. What she said should be a cautionary tale for all those concerned with education.

She chose her daughter’s secondary school purely and simply on the fact that the school bus stops at the end of their street.

The school closest to the family home was rejected because attending here would involve a 15-20 minute walk. And this mother pointed out: “Sometimes it might even rain.”

What’s more, she admitted that neither she nor her daughter actually like the school in question. It was chosen simply because it is easy to get there. Now, I’m all for practicality – especially in the mornings – but is it only me who finds this attitude extremely depressing?

Nothing to do with the GCSE results, the extra-curricular activities or the standard of the science labs. It made me wonder, not for the first time, about how different people value the purpose of education.

Even in the adolescent years when the challenge of college or work looms ever closer on the horizon, too many parents regard school as an extension of kindergarten – a place where the kids are kept occupied all day, out of sight and out of mind.

I’m sorry if I sound harsh. The woman I was talking to works unsocial hours in a shop and, as far as I am aware, is bringing up her daughter on her own. I don’t have any right to judge. However, our conversation reminded me of the despair I fell into last year as we went around secondary schools with my own daughter on the “open evening” circuit. Too much herd mentality, and too little questioning of what a school could actually deliver, except perhaps a reliable bus.

I thought about all the efforts made by the Government to raise educational standards, and all the work put in by teachers and school governors. I considered all the hours of political debate over how to prepare our state-educated offspring to compete in a global marketplace. And I’m still talking to parents who choose their child’s secondary school with no regard for this.

I live in a town, so at least we have a series of choices available. Families in rural areas are not so lucky. Only last week pupils who live in Nidderdale, and who attend St Aidan’s Church of England High School in Harrogate, were dismayed to find that the school bus they rely on every day was under threat of withdrawal. Thankfully, a deal has been reached and the youngsters can now make the necessary connections.

I do wonder if choice is a good thing. Are we looking at a future situation where certain schools will thrive, and others falter, over matters which are not even strictly educational?

The whole issue of school transport also makes me think about wider priorities. We have half the country – the middle-class, aspirational and informed half – moving house and mortgaging themselves to the hilt so that they can position themselves in the perfect catchment area for a particularly outstanding school.

And then we have the other half worrying about rain. It has to be the responsibility of every parent to look at the biggest picture possible and choose a school on the basis of everything – proximity, ease of access, results and the general school culture.

As any teacher will tell you, the best way to turn around a failing school is to get the parents onside. How can this be achieved when some of these parents have their priorities all wrong?

I’ve also heard of parents giving in and allowing their 11-year-olds to attend certain schools because all their friends are going there. Or because they like the uniform. Or because they will be able to go on a trip to New York in Year 10.

Decisions over the education of our children are amongst the most important we parents ever have to take.

It is absolutely vital that our youngsters are happy and comfortable in their schools, and that we are as satisfied as possible with the standards of teaching, discipline and so on. Shouldn’t we all be concerning ourselves with these kind of major matters, instead of fretting that our offspring might actually have to walk?

And shouldn’t schools be more aware of the real concerns of parents and pupils? When I spoke to the head of my own children’s school, he seemed unaware of the fact that one of the reasons why he is having trouble recruiting children from certain well-regarded primary schools is because the school bus doesn’t go to where they live. Honest consideration of the issues behind picking a certain school would be beneficial, I think.

In a few weeks, it will be open evening season again across our region. Nervous Year 6 pupils and their families will be making the tour as we did last year, attempting to come to the right decision.

Have a heart for the teachers, the senior management teams and politicians when parents are making this most vital of choices on the basis of a bus route – and not the quality of learning.