School choice is a matter of principle

Jonny Mitchell.
Jonny Mitchell.

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

Now he writes exclusively for the Reporter Series.

Every week he will give us his take on life in and outside school from his hometown in Dewsbury.

It was National Secondary School Offer Day last week, and so cue mass hysteria, as parents panic because their sons or daughters have not been allocated a place at their first choice school.

I surprised (and almost annoyed) myself by going onto various social media sites and trying to spy on a few of the conversations which were happening between (mainly) worried mums because they had been given a place at that **expletive** school down the road.

I have seen this somewhere before. Every year, when the offers are made, there is a mad dash for the School Appeals System, because a huge miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated. Parents were told some years ago that they would have the choice of where to send their kids when the time came. The stark reality is, however, there are simply not enough places available in the schools that are the most popular with parents, because they have a capacity, and they cannot exceed it.

But this is where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever people might say to be politically correct, there are such things as good schools and bad schools, and the good schools are popular and the bad schools are not.

What is most perverse for those that the community sees as “bad” schools is that they have little chance of becoming popular, because, even when they emerge from difficulty and become “Good” or even “Outstanding”, people still have memories. It can take decades for a previously under-performing school to regain any form of popularity within its own community, even when the work that is going on there and the results that are being achieved are better than in the other schools which are popular. I know this is true, as three of the four schools I have worked in for any period of time have all been Good according to Ofsted, but still appear to haemorrhage students to other schools, deemed to be better schools by parents and the community but which, in some cases, are not judged as such by professional organisations such as Ofsted.

I have children, and I want the very best for them. I want them to receive a good education, and to enjoy their formative years. The school they attended was placed in special measures a couple of years ago, and a great deal of work has gone on to ensure the school could be brought back up to a level that Ofsted found acceptable, and it is now Good.

But even when it was not, my kids still enjoyed going there. They loved their teachers, they had good friends, they worked hard, they made progress. Alright, maybe for a couple of years, the school hasn’t fulfilled its responsibilities and, yes, some parents withdrew their children for other schools, but - essentially - little has changed for them as children. They still brim with enthusiasm for their teachers, for the sports they can do, for the visits and experiences they have, much like they did for the two years the school was deemed Inadequate. And I am so glad they still go there (we could have moved them to an Outstanding school if we had wanted) because they have stability, resilience, enjoyment and enthusiasm for school.

So, I was about to say that I don’t envy being a parent and having these choices to make, but I can’t. I am a parent, and have to do this “which School” thing twice more. But I have to stick to my principles (which are not for everyone, I know). My children will go to their local catchment school, irrespective of whether they are Good or not, because it is only by people NOT bypassing schools which have poor reputations that those schools will get BETTER.