I’m not new to parenting. In fact, Hank and Anna just celebrated their 18th and 16th birthdays. I’ve been “Mama”, “Mother” and “Mom” for a long time now, but I’m only three weeks into this new adventure as a mum… as in, “Is that your mum, luv? She’ll need to be signing these papers for us.” And I’ve tried to think positively of the project of enrolling Anna into a sixth form college as an immersion-learning experience for my research into post-16 education in the UK.
Now those of you who know me are aware that Anna has been homeschooled for all but her kindergarten year. But this year, she wanted to go to school. If we had stayed in McMinnville, she would have enrolled at Warren County High School (our only public school option.) When we found out we were going to be in England, she was especially eager to see what the schools would be like, and to have a chance to make British friends.
My Fulbright informational packet gave instructions for signing dependents up for education through local city councils. I immediately discovered that those instructions were only meant for parents of students in years 1 – 11 (which correspond to our grades K – 10). At the end of year 11, students take GCSE exams to qualify for different post-16 education options. Students with academic qualifications go on to sixth form and students with vocational qualifications go on to further education (its a little more complicated that that, but I am trying to be brief). Post-16 schools are independently operated, although they are publicly funded. I was given my placement at the University of Leeds in mid-June, so I emailed a representative from the Leeds City Council, who gave me some web links to Ofsted school rankings and standardized test scores that were intended to guide me toward the best schools, and instructed me to choose a sixth form college and apply to the school directly. And that’s when things began to get interesting.
Since it was late June when I began my enquiries, schools were just going on vacation and no one answered my emails or phone calls. So, I had to shelve the process until school officials returned around the end of August. By that time, we had arrived in Leeds to get settled in. The first school I emailed was full. I got a little concerned that all the schools might be full, so I emailed several at a time, but received no replies. I began making follow-up calls. When I told the first two schools that we would only be in the country until the end of March, both said they would have to check with “admissions” and get back with me. Now, I thought they meant their own school admissions office, but I later discovered that “Admisssions” is the funding office for the UK Department of Education. I never heard back from one of the schools, but the other called back to tell me that admissions said that their school would not receive funding unless Anna sat for A level exams in June. Later, I received an email from another school with the same answer.
Well, one of my initial research questions had been, “Just how important are standardized test scores in UK schools?”, and I suppose the answer rings loud and clear. Not only are Ofsted school rankings and test results the be-all and end-all criteria for parent selection of schools, but funding itself is contingent on completion of exams. So now I have a host of other questions, such as, “How does the system ensure that students in transitional living situations like those in temporary foster care or homeless have equal access to appropriate educational options?” and “How are schools adequately funded if students move out of the area during the school year due to economic changes (mass lay-offs, etc)?”
But here is the one that, as a mum rather than a researcher, I have to be most concerned with right now: “How can Anna be required by compulsory attendance laws to attend school, and yet schools can reject her because they are not funded to take her?” Now, this is a funny issue here. First, compulsory education has only been extended to 16-year-olds this year. In fact, many UK citizens, and even those working in the field of education are not aware of the new laws. Anna’s birthdate clearly places her in the compulsory attendance age, but I have had to convince several people of this. One Fulbright colleague suggested I simply turn myself into the police for non-compliance with truancy laws! It might yet come to that, but I am still hopeful. I have been conversing with admissions officials at the Department of Education, but have still not worked my way up the chain of command to anyone who can provide definitive answers. And we are considering letting Anna stay through exams, somehow, or requesting early exams, if that is possible.