Crying in the Council Office: Not my Finest Moment

Where, O where, to begin?

Two weeks ago yesterday, I disembarked at Southampton like an old-world countess abandoning and old life, with suitcases full of evening gowns, bed sheets for the family, my best coffee pot and my daughter’s wellies.

I don’t know how to begin to articulate the ups and downs of two weeks as we made our way in country as England’s newest immigrants, but there is one thing I know for sure: Spend any time in a foreign country as a non-tourist AND THERE WILL BE TEARS.

Last year, after being unable to figure out how to hail a bus and a series of subsequent unfortunate events that culminated in the grocery store not accepting my American credit card, I stood right in the Budgen’s in Crouch End and cried. This time, it was British bureaucracy that wore me down. (Nota Bene: “British” is simply the identifier of the source of the bureaucracy. I just moved from a town in New Jersey that keep important city records on a grotty legal pad, so to be clear, spectacularly inefficient and/or byzantine local governance is an international language!)

I’ll get to the glories of the Queen Mary 2 and the new flat (that is still sans furniture,) but today, I offer a long rant, only of interest to those who love hearing about government in inaction, overly optimistic Americans, primary schools and expat angst.

A School Story (With Tears)
Extended Edition 

So. . . without delving into all the details or laying any blame (because there aren’t any villains in this story,) on Monday, Z lost her school place. The headteacher at the extraordinary state school Z attended last year led us to believe that there would be a place for her when we returned to London this fall. I think he believed this too, and he’s been very helpful and kind to us–so again, there are no villains here! However, Monday, he let us know that there was no place for Z. I believe it was a sibling situation, where over the summer holiday, a student was accepted in another year; that student had a sibling, who under law is automatically accepted to the school as well; and that sibling was in. . . wait for it. . . Year One! The acceptance of that sibling took the last open place in Z’s school year.

That was Monday. London schools all started Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

In London, you are not simply assigned to a local school entirely based on geography. For example, three houses down for me (yes, three houses) is a primary school. I can hear the kids playing in the schoolyard there as I type this. That school is full, with a waiting list. There’s no place for Z there.

I spent Monday night and all day Tuesday researching schools, applying to schools, talking to schools, trying to get ANYONE from our Council to speak with me about the problem. However, no school I called had place (and many were already oversubscribed.) No one at the Council could tell me where or IF any school places in Year One were available, and no one at the Council had any idea as to when or IF any school places in Year One would become available.

There’s a semantics game to be played here, in that the Council is legally obligated to provide children within their boundaries places at school, but there doesn’t appear to be a school place for Z. The Council then continues its vague “we’re working on it, we’ll call you back, I’ll get your applications to the right person soon” mantra, and then they haven’t officially said, “No school place for you,” so you can’t appeal. So. . .

There’s also the bad timing element in that I’m now trying to find a school place AFTER all places have been sorted and school rolls are transitioning from Council to individual school control.

At first, when I started calling schools directly to see if a place might be available, I was struck by how kind each receptionist in each school office was. Then, after the fifth or sixth school I spoke to, I realized that it wasn’t kindness I was being offered, but pity. We happen to live in a lovely area of London, with excellent state primary schools nearby–the kinds of schools where parents move next door when their kids are babies to guarantee admission, so nobody is really dropping out between Reception (like kindergarten, except students here start when they’re four) and Year One. There was no place ANYWHERE I called. Every secular state school, C of E school, and even independent school I called turned up full.

On Tuesday, The Guardian published “Councils Face Shortage of Primary School Places.” They followed up Wednesday with this editorial: “The agony of no school places for five-year-olds: how did we come to this?” On one had, it was comforting to know that I am not alone in my woes, but the comments blaming immigrants for the problem started me down the dark spiral of supreme mommy guilt. (Don’t worry, the crying is coming!)

The low point (here come the tears!) came after spending my entire Tuesday trying to reach ANYONE at the Council via phone who could assist me with finding a school place. Tuesday afternoon, for example, the day many London schools were starting, the Council School Admissions Team were in a retreat and unreachable (surely to avoid parents like myself who were lost and scrambling at the last minute.) I went to the main Council office Wednesday morning, when the nice lady at reception handed me a slip of paper with the phone number for School Admissions on it and directed me to a bank of phones across the room. At least I had BBC News to pass the time while I phoned every 1-2 minutes looking for a person, rather than a busy signal or yesterday’s outgoing message. The repeated dialing, the Council office full of things I barely yet understand, one of the goals of this move being to give the gift of an international view of the world to my daughter. . . here we go! Tears!

But (and this is the key thing that I got to after a little crying in the Council office): I am not a victim here, nor is my daughter. I read somewhere recently that fancying yourself a victim is really about thinking so highly of yourself that the world cares about you enough to victimize you! Fact: No one at my Council knows who I am really, so how in the world can I be a victim? My school place crisis was a problem of the system itself, larger national trends, putting all my eggs in one basket, and of extraordinary bad luck and timing. No one was out to get me, and I had no time for tears.

I had researched some independent (private) schools as part of my research, and even those were full-up with waiting lists. Finally, on Wednesday, a glorious right place/right time phone call revealed an open place in an up-and-coming, small, arts-focused independent school. “Could we come for a school visit now?” I was asked.

We scrubbed up and dashed for the 271 to Hoxton.

After the school visit, my husband and I stopped for coffee nearby for some grown-up talk about what to do. Z had been nervous about visiting the school and had expressed great sadness over not being able to return to the state school she had loved. While washing her hands after using the bathroom (kids often share important news at the strangest of times,) she said, “That school was actually fun. Can we go back there tomorrow?”

Done. She started her new school yesterday.

And now, I–myself a daughter of public school teachers (who married a man whose mother was also a public school teacher)–have my own daughter in a private school.

The upsides:

–The school is small and personal, with 2/3 the class size of a state school (and the same number of teachers.)
–The energy at the school is easygoing, but focused.
–There’s swimming on Fridays, a focus on learning through the arts, and loads of field trips.

–For Z, the fact that this term’s theme is “Turrets and Tiaras,” which culminates in a trip to a real castle soothes the burn of potentially missing out on the mythical “Year Six Overnight Camping Trip” that was part of her former school.

The downsides:

–There’s a bit of a commute, but it’s an easy, single bus trip.
–There are fees.

However, everyone slept better last night, and this morning Z told me how Picasso painted portraits in black and blue when he was sad because his friend died, but she painted her portrait yesterday in happy colors because she was happy.

I feel extremely grateful a) to have found a school place for Z, b) to have the resources to be able to pay for it, and c) to have the free time to be able to get her there and back everyday. The mind boggles at how long we would have had to wait for a school place if none of those things were the case.

CODA: The Council finally acknowledged receipt of my school place applications TODAY and noted that EACH school I applied to (I think there were 8-10 in total) would have to issue a formal answer to my request for a school place in writing (via mail) before the Council would THEN work to find me a place at a school “with space closest to my address,” which could be miles away.

Perhaps now since we’ve had the tears bit, I can have the peace in my new home bit.

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6 thoughts on “Crying in the Council Office: Not my Finest Moment

  1. That Guardian story is crazy. SOMA issues – having to send your kid to Seth Boyden becaused one missed the local school deadline – pale in comparison. Glad Z ended up somewhere she’ll be happy though.

    Oh, and thanks for the rice cooker! We rocked the heck out of some jasmine last night.

    1. I miss that rice cooker!

      And yes, this whole thing has really put US school place woes in perspective. I just feel lucky that we had the resources to take the course we did.

  2. Hazel is learning so much: how to use public transportation, Picasso’s Blue Period, that knee-highs must be pulled to the knees! (ok, that last one is a result of my own private school education, but I digress) It is stressful enough being an expat, and the number of tears I’ve had over ridiculous things – uncountable; but I never had to worry about a little human being who wasn’t me, so I can imagine the stress is ten-fold.

    I’m sending you hugs, a jealous glance (because your move at least includes proximity to the V.O.C.), and a simple reminder: this will be the stuff of sighed laughter and cocktail conversation at Hazel’s graduation from Oxford, or Stamford, or where-awesome-ever this unexpected path leads.

    Now, go find yourself a nice car-boot sale in the country and buy some kitsch for that new apartment of yours!

  3. You are a good Mama…and extremely brave. It is amazing to have a child that roll with it like worldly Z. You moved mountains and got what you needed…that’s the shit.

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