Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson


Primary-school admissions for idiots

Robyn Wilder is entering the tangled web that is choosing a primary school for her son and she doesn’t feel she’s up to the task

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By Robyn Wilder on

I’m sitting in assembly, picking at my shoe and trying to focus on whatever the headmistress is droning on about. It’s difficult, though, because my stomach wants to rumble and I have double maths after lunch, and –

“BIT JESUS-Y IN HERE, ISN’T IT?” my husband leans over and whispers, stagily.

And suddenly I remember that I have a husband. That I’m not a child at school, but an adult visiting one, because her oldest son will fall into the education system next September. We are at the first of today’s primary-school open days, along with a troop of other, be-anoraked parents. The familiar smell of gym mats and municipal coffee had sent me tumbling headlong into my own past, but I’m back in the room now.

The room is, indeed, a bit Jesus-y. The big man himself gazes down at us, in class-collage form, from above the stage, and illustrated parables line the walls. But, says the headmistress, although this is a faith school, they welcome children from different faiths or no faith. Which is lucky, because we are a family of stone-cold heathens. Gradually, as the headmistress clicks through her PowerPoint slides dense with numbers, graphs and double-spaced Comic Sans, I am again lulled into a torpor and the Creeping Terror of Primary School Admissions starts to unclutch my heart.

The familiar smell of gym mats and municipal coffee had sent me tumbling headlong into my own past, but I’m back in the room now

For me, at least, The Creeping Terror of Primary School Admissions is tripartite:

1 I went to boarding school, so primary-school admissions are totally foreign to me

I realise this doesn’t paint me sympathetically, but I went to prep school instead of primary school, and the admissions process therein basically involves a cash transaction and a train ticket. If we had to kit my son out in a jaunty beret and herringbone blazer, I’d be in my element. Instead, I’m ineptly navigating catchment areas and waiting lists like a kitten with too large a ball of wool, which my husband has found very amusing.

Also, I am very old. In my day, classes were called things like “third-year seniors” or “Mrs Pratt’s class” or, given that I was at boarding school, really helpful names such as “4a(E)”. “What is Reception?” I keep asking my husband, as though he is somehow Primary School Google. “How old are kids when they’re in Year 5?” I never seem to retain the information he gives me, either.

2 You’re never too old to be terrified of a headmistress

Although they have been to a person friendly and approachable, any headmistress I have met as an adult has chilled me to my very core. Somehow I feel they can see into my soul, specifically all the times I’ve handed work in late, sworn or run when I should be walking.

“Any questions?” At the end of her presentation, this particular headmistress asks this perfectly nicely (if slightly operatically), but the parents rear back fearfully as one, and stay quiet. We direct our questions instead at the giant children appointed to show groups of us around the school and they answer dutifully.   

3 How do you pick your favourite school, anyway?

Should it be the one with the toilets cleverly placed right outside the classroom? Or the one that’s slightly run-down, but feels homelier? These decisions seem far too adult for us to make, somehow, about the life of another human being, yet make them we must, so we vow to be vigilant, just and thorough in our choosing.

“Goodbye!” the headmistress trills, as all we parents file out to visit the next school. “Come along!” she adds, when some of us dawdle. As we leave, my husband and I weigh up the pros and cons. Yes, a church school might steer our son morally, but would it support his creative personality? Sure, the facilities are generous, but would he benefit from a smaller environment?

It is cold and wintry as we trudge through the streets, past the park, over the bridge. The wind hacks at our faces and the rain spits on our heads. By the time we arrive at the second, smaller school, we’re soaked and freezing. As soon as we walk in, the headmistress here grins at us, and directs us towards a kindly-faced teacher, who presses a hot drink and a biscuit into our numb hands and gives us a wink.

Well, what do you know? Perhaps picking your favourite school isn’t as difficult as all that.


Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson
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