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‘We᾿d Been Caught Up In A Frenzy’ – The Scheme That’s Taking On Those Secondary Transition Fears

Horror stories about local secondaries can cause primary children and their parents to run a mile – but give them the chance to speak to the pupils at those schools and the truth will out, says Madeleine Holt...

  • ‘We᾿d Been Caught Up In A Frenzy’ – The Scheme That’s Taking On Those Secondary Transition Fears

Pete Halsall is a parent at my children’s primary school with a story to tell. For me, the story has a happy ending. Pete’s son will go to his local community comprehensive school this September. Two years ago this was the last place he thought he would be sending him.

Track back to 2014, and Pete’s own account of his school-choice odyssey: “Like all parents choosing a secondary school, we started looking at our options with some trepidation. We listened to whispered conversations in the playground, we scoured Mumsnet, and we studied Ofsted reports. We felt we had no choice. There were no good secondary schools near us.”

Then Pete and his partner went to a Meet the Parents event. I started these several years ago at my local primary, and now run them across half of all primaries in Camden. Put simply, we invite families who have children at the local comprehensives to come and talk frankly to primary school parents about their school experience. We usually organise them in the autumn term, one evening, ideally before secondary school open days.

Filling the information gap

Back to Pete. “Two of the schools we’d originally discounted were represented. We left the Meet the Parents sessions very confused. How was it possible that both these schools had such positive reviews from the students and parents when we had heard so much to the contrary?”

At this event, the primary school parents were able to ask whatever they wanted. They were particularly keen to know about a poor Ofsted report at one school, and whether the school had since changed under a new, interim, head. Families told them the school had been transformed. A few months later their verdict was backed by an Ofsted inspector.

The panel wasn’t entirely positive. This is extremely important – Meet the Parents is about frankness. It fills the information gap between the schmooze of open days and the all too often negative and outdated rumours in the playground.

One 12-year-old had complained about a ban on skateboards, another about prison-style discipline. No school is perfect, and in my experience, Meet the Parents events work much better if families have the chance to say what needs to be improved. That said, if people just don’t like their school, they are unlikely to agree to take part.

It’s good to get a social and cultural mix on the panel, if that’s a fair reflection of the local secondaries. It also works well to have more students than parents – our scheme should really be renamed ‘Meet the Students’. We have learnt that they are the real stars of the evening – invariably honest, ambitious, funny and self-aware.

We usually ask the primary school head to do an introduction, but sometimes they will be willing to host the whole thing. They have bought into the idea in a big way; in smaller schools they now use Meet the Parents as their key transition event, rather than having individual chats with parents.

All about community

Back to Pete. After his Meet the Parents event, he made several trips to two local schools that had attracted his attention. “We came away with very different opinions from those we started with. We realised we’d been caught up in a frenzy, where every conversation we had with every parent we met was about secondary school options, and how we had no choice in our area.

“We have now chosen the school we like our son to attend. Amazingly, it is the school that was at the top of our ‘scrap heap’ last year.”

Pete’s story is not the only one. I am accumulating a pile of testimonials from parents who have decided to stay local, largely because of going to a Meet the Parents event. Sometimes a star student will win them over. Often parents see the appeal of their children being able to walk to school, staying with their friends and having time after school to grow emotionally and socially.

For me, it is all about community. Educating everyone together, regardless of their background, I still find a hugely powerful idea. The students at our events are living proof of the benefits. As one panellist so wisely put it, education is not just about academic results, but the results in terms of how your child turns out.

Madeleine Holt was culture correspondent for BBC Newsnight for 10 years and is the founder of Meet the Parents; for more information, visit meettheparents.info or follow @MeetParents

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