Friday, January 22, 2016

In England, school starts at age 4

We moved across the border, and our preschooler has suddenly become school-aged.

No more nursery. We've kissed goodbye our freedom from school calendars. Upon crossing the border, our wee 'un in Scotland transmogrified into an English schoolboy.

Wearing his school uniform
Jackson in his uniform, on his very first day of school. (I've edited the photo to remove the name of the school.)
Our new schoolboy is thrilled to have become a "big kid."

I'm a little more reticent. Expat life comes with complications, and schooling is one of them.

England starts them young

Throughout almost all the rest of the world, children don't start school until at least the age of five. In many countries kids don't start until age six, which is the norm in Europe. Some European nations start schooling at age seven.

To my mind, starting school at age four is quite young. At four, kids are just leaving toddlerhood. In the U.S., they're preschoolers, not deemed ready for the rigors of a day of school.

In England, these four year olds enter into the "reception year," only partly equivalent with kindergarten in the U.S. Fortunately, much of their time is spent playing, or in play-based learning. But they're also engaged in daily lessons, usually of phonics or maths — note the plural on maths, which is what we call it here — or in a variety of other topics.

From what I've gleaned so far, reception year is closer academically to first grade in America. What typical six year olds do in the U.S., the kids here do at age four.

Technically, the compulsory school age in England is five. Parents can elect to have their kids skip reception year and send their five year olds into Year 1. Very, very few kids do so. Some parents of "summer born children" would like to have their five year olds enter reception year, which has caused a political fight that Parliament looks likely to resolve by allowing five year olds to enter reception year at their parents' discretion. We pondered trying to do so with Jackson, but it isn't the law yet and we would've had to fight the Bristol school system for permission. We opted against that.

Instead, for better or worse, our immigrant son is following the path of the vast majority of his English peers.

By contrast, if we had stayed in Scotland, Jackson would've entered school at age five. The same holds true for Northern Ireland. Wales aligns with England, starting children at four.

Do all schools require uniforms?

school uniform shoes
"Non-marking plain black shoes" are required for the uniform.
No, but most do. In fact, the overwhelming majority of primary and secondary school students wear uniforms. On any school day you see hordes of well-dressed kids in blazers and trousers or skirts. Young children typically wear jumpers (i.e., sweaters) instead of blazers.

For the youngest ages, not all schools require uniforms. It's a decision left up to individual schools, as determined by headteachers (i.e., principals) and, perhaps, governing boards of schools. Moreover, whilst most schools in England are operated by the government, a quickly increasing number of schools are now "academies," essentially private schools run by education trusts. Attendance at academies is free of charge. From just a few dozen a few years ago, academies now number in the thousands, with no sign of abatement. The academies have more discretion over decisions like school uniforms and length of days, though they still must follow the national curriculum.

How much did Jackson's uniform cost? Roughly, a couple hundred dollars. The required uniform included: a monogrammed jumper; five plain white polo shirts (a mixture of monogrammed and generic shirts); several gray trousers, which we had professionally hemmed; gray socks; plain black shoes; a P.E. outfit of monogrammed sweatshirt, shorts, and running trousers (i.e., sweatpants); a small water bottle; and a bookbag.

Where an older kid might disdain a uniform, the little kids tend to view it as a symbol of now being "big" and able to go to school. Jackson loved his uniform.

{Ed.'s note: "Loved"? Does he no longer love it?}

No, he still does love it. But how long did we make use of this uniform? Two weeks. That's right, we got a total of two weeks use of this uniform.

I explain more in the next section.

Jackson misses his uniform. Of course, now he can wear Minion shirts, and superhero socks, and blinking shoes, so he's not too distraught.

Extremely local — and frequently oversubscribed schools

Primary schools tend to the smaller side in England. Often, there will be only one or two classrooms per age, so one or two reception years, one or two Year 1 classes, and so on. By law, class sizes are limited to thirty students, with one teacher and a couple of teaching assistants. Primary school extends to Year 6, after which kids head to secondary school.

In urban areas, these small schools are very much neighborhood schools. They are full to capacity. Many schools operate waiting lists, the priority for which is determined not by how long you've been on the list but instead by the distance you live from the school.

Unless he has an older sibling at a school, or one of a few other exceptions, a child very likely lives just a few hundred yards (actually meters, but I find it hard to shift to using the metric system) from his school. There's no public busing of students, so unless a parent provides transportation, the child almost certainly walks to school.

Given the class size limits, which are set in stone, there's no flexibility for a new kid moving into the neighborhood during the year. If there are no open spaces, your kid cannot attend. That was our problem for Jackson, because we moved to Bristol at the end of November 2015. To have secured a spot at our local primary school — which by all parent accounts, government ratings, test scores, etc., is one of the very best schools in the city — we would have had to apply by January 2015, many months before we even knew we were moving to Bristol. Impossible to have done, obviously. 

Jackson and Kate on the first day of school
Jackson and Kate on his first day of school.
So we were left scrambling to find a space for Jackson. Fortunately, we found an excellent academy a half mile away, a new science/technology school run by an education trust that also runs several of the best primary and secondary schools in Bristol. We were very lucky to have stumbled into a space in that school, which is so brand new it has only one reception class, with no other classes or years yet.

However, we also put ourselves on the waitlist for our local primary school. From what we were told, spots come open very rarely. It might be years before a spot materialized.

And yet, somehow, a place opened up, a mere two weeks after Jackson started at the academy. Given our proximity to the local school — we're literally a stone's throw away — Jackson was at the top of the waitlist. I know we jumped ahead of at least three kids who had been on the waitlist for the entire school year, but them's the rules.

Though it would mean further disruption for Jackson, we simply couldn't pass up a spot at his outstanding local school. Both of our next door neighbors have four year olds at the school, and they're his nearest thing to buddies here. Also, with a new baby on the way, this school is incredibly convenient.

Fortunately, Jackson seems remarkably adaptable to new situations. Over the course of twelve months, he has started at nursery in Scotland; shifted to a new building for nursery (luckily, with the same teacher and some of the same kids); moved to England; started primary school; changed schools two weeks later; and, in the next six weeks, added a baby brother. That's a lot of change for me and Kate, let alone a little kid. We've thrust him into the "new kid" role several times just in the last several months, and he doesn't bat an eye.

We're not winning any parenting awards this year, that's for sure. But he goes along without a fuss. We try to frame all the newness as adventures, and Jackson has totally bought into that framework. He's already planning our next move "once we're bored with England," which should be, in his opinion, to Germany, because on the autobahn "you can drive 100." That's his sole criteria. Meanwhile, I'm now determined to give him some stability, perhaps even seeking U.K. citizenship.

How long is the school day?

In Bristol, and I think throughout England, a school day at the primary level lasts between six and seven hours. For secondary schools, you can add another hour or two, with some in the government calling for ten hour days and reduced vacation time.

Jackson's school day lasts from 8:55 until 3:30. At noon, he has an hour and 15 minutes for lunch and outdoor playtime.

School in England is year-round, though that's not as long as you might think

A debate rages in many parts of the U.S. about whether to have a "traditional" school year of September(ish) to June(ish), with a long summer break, or a "year round" school year, with more frequent breaks during the year but a substantially shorter summer. Either way, the school year lasts about 180 days.

England, like much of the rest of the world, operates its schools in a year-round format. The school year lasts 190 days. Each year has six terms, though these terms are of unequal lengths. Summer break lasts approximately six weeks.

Almost all schools and school systems follow the same calendar. Bristol's calendar is below, though individual schools can shift a few days here and there, often for "inset days" (i.e., teacher workdays):

  • Term 1           Tuesday 1 September to Wednesday 21 October 2015
  • Term 2           Monday 2 November to Friday 18 December 2015
  • Term 3           Monday 4 January to Friday 5 February 2016
  • Term 4           Monday 15 February to Thursday 24 March 2016
                           (Easter is 25 to 28 March)
  • Term 5           Monday 11 April to Friday 27 May 2016
                           (closed on 2 May 2015 for the Early May Bank Holiday)
  • Term 6           Monday 6 June to Friday 22 July 2016

Having almost all English schools on the same calendar is useful for planning purposes. But it's absolute hell for travel plans and costs during school break times. Everybody goes on holiday at the same time, which causes plane fares and accommodation costs to skyrocket. Available bookings become frighteningly scarce. The problem is so pronounced that the government is toying with the idea of allowing schools to set their own calendars, just to avoid the holiday crush.

Can you take your kid out of school during term time? Nope. Well, you can, but only if you have the headteacher's permission. Otherwise, you can be fined £60 per day of absence. If you are deemed too egregious, they can take you to court and even put you in jail. Putting on my attorney hat, that's fairly unlikely, but it's a power the schools increasingly are seeking to enforce.

We're new to a year-round format. I'm withholding judgment. I like having longer breaks during the school year, but allowing only six weeks for summer seems achingly short.

Regrettably, as an expat who's living overseas in part because of the opportunities to travel, I'm now tethered to the school calendar. Tethered for — and this part pains me — the next couple of decades. Noooooooo!!!!!

With our move to England, we suddenly have a school-age child. And the joys and travails which come along.

On the way to school
Off to school, still in uniform.

1 comment:

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