Overthinking primary (elementary) school: how much does it matter?
November 6, 2017 1:41 AM   Subscribe

I though I knew what my criteria for a good primary school was; now I'm not so sure. Help!

We live in London, but this isn't a London specific question.

We are a mixed-race, middle-class family. We have to register our oldest child for school soon, and we have a few options.

I suppose I always thought that I wanted a school that seemed friendly, lots of different social classes, active parent group, nice outdoor space and with a good percentage of brown people. We found a school in a neighborhood we can afford that is like this. I've talked to parents who send their kids there who really like it. (Private school is not an option, and not really right for us ideologically anyway.)

BUT I recently talked to some friends who have totally different ideas about school and that it REALLY MATTERS. So they are all renting or moving to send their kids to fancier schools. I've visited some of these schools, and indeed they are very lovely! Beautiful buildings, lots of activities, extra money from fundraising, highly-educated group of parents, more of a Montessori-feel. They tend to have better results on standardized tests too.

But, because of where they are, they are largely full of white, wealthy kids -- I think I'd be worried if that was my kids' only peer group. And the neighborhoods they are in are expensive for us, and feel a bit suburban. Still, one of my friends who is obsessed with this question recently admitted she didn't really think the school I've chosen was good enough for her kid -- I was a bit hurt, so she didn't elaborate. Another friend told me she worried about the accent my kid would pick up there (!) I absolutely know it's not a bad school, and I think that it is probably a very good school -- but not fancy.

Let's see, what's my question? Social mix, decent test scores, nice vibe v. fancier, more academically ambitious schools that are less diverse? I have the option of sending my kids to one of the fancier schools -- will I regret that I didn't later? Have you had experiences in either of these kinds of schools?

(I do think secondary school probably matters more, and will probably be more picky in choosing one of those.)
posted by caoimhe to Education (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My youngest is 10, so this is mostly behind us and our friends. Here's what I would say based on our experiences: if the school your kid starts at turns out to be a poor fit, or flawed in some unacceptable way, you'll figure it out. So many of my friends started with their kids in one school option and shifted to another after some period of time. I've had friends who were very committed to keeping their kids in a public, minority-white city school, and who eventually did move their kids elsewhere because the school simply didn't have the resources to deal with their kids' particular challenges. I know other people whose kids have moved to less "ritzy" schools because the academic pressure wasn't good for them.

I live in the US, so I don't know much about how much school mobility your family will have. But the thing is, you can't necessarily know what will be right for your kids until you're in it, and, once you are, it will be fairly obvious whether your child is thriving or not.

Maybe keep in mind, too, that you don't need a perfect or optimal solution. A "good enough" solution is exactly that. Whatever you choose, there will be advantages and drawbacks. Our 16-year-old, for instance, has been homeschooled all the way through. This still feels to us like it was a good choice for him, but we're also aware of some things about public school that we think would have benefited him, and he is very aware right now that going to public school would have provided him an easier-to-follow path into whatever comes next for him.

Also: at some point, I figured out my best answer to people's criticisms and "helpful" suggestions: "We'll see." Another good one: "We're going to try this for now."
posted by Orlop at 2:29 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Some people will go purely off SAT scores and Ofsted reports, but IME plenty of people (subconsciously or otherwise, explicitly or not) are making decisions based on racist and/or classist reasons.

Schools attitudes to SATs vary from making the entire of Year 6 about them to barely mentioning them - definitely worth having a think which end of that spectrum you'd like. I also think that it's worth looking at teacher turnover.

The school you have chosen is the one I'd choose too, for very similar reasons.
posted by threetwentytwo at 2:30 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you choose a primary school, you're choosing a community, as well as a school. I strongly feel that you should pick a local school that is a good fit- (which is why you have to move to send your kid there- primary schools are designed to be local, this is a good thing!) Secondary is totally different. Pick the school that has the community that you want to be a part of.

My friends recently went through this- peer group saying oh yes, you must pick the very expensive religious school - but they just couldn't afford it (especially considering the costs looking ahead to the younger siblings also being enrolled.) Go with the neighbourhood you can afford! (I'm biased, the split is public/private in my town and I work at the government high school.)

The biggest influence on your kid will still be you and your family. Don't worry about the pressure to pick a 'good school' - ultimately it's your kid's job to learn and thrive, and they don't need shiny buildings to do that. You've found a school you like, in a neighbourhood you can afford, that suits your family. Yay!
posted by freethefeet at 2:48 AM on November 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Whilst some research highlights the importance of schooling in affecting outcomes, the majority of evidence - like this suggests that the biggest impact on childhood outcomes is what's happening at home, typically the education level and income of the parents.

These findings have been replicated in many different countries. This is of course, not to say that there isn't opposing research, or that school doesn't matter. But there is much evidence suggesting that school matters less than we parents think, probably because we compensate for any perceived gaps at home, if we have the means.
posted by smoke at 3:13 AM on November 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

You’re right, your friends are wrong (and wrong for sort of racist/classist reasons). Primary school, as long as the school is sort of reasonably orderly and pleasant, your kid will get all the academics they need in either of the options. (I mean, stereotyping you madly from writing style and where you chose to ask this question, your kid will get most of the academics they need for primary school through osmosis at home.

But if you make sacrifices to shield them from having to interact with anyone who isn’t upper-middle-class and mostly white, you’re training them on a visceral level to think of poorer/browner people as aliens to be avoided, which will do them much more damage lifetime than learning set theory a year later will.

And you’ll risk screwing up your own political beliefs. Once you commit to protecting your kids from having to associate with ‘those people’, decent as you may be at the beginning, you’re very likely to come to believe that it was absolutely necessary, which is going to mean talking yourself into some false negative beliefs about them.

I made the same decision you’re looking at fourteen years ago in NYC, and my (college freshman and high school junior) kids are academically just fine, thank you, and I haven’t had to do any work at all to teach them not to be assholes about race and class, decent behavior has come organically.

Stick to your principles!
posted by LizardBreath at 3:49 AM on November 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

We had to make a similar decision (kid’s not in school yet, but it was a factor in choosing where to live) and ultimately we decided that the homogeneity cancelled out the greatness of the “great” schools. Most school systems are segregated to the point where good and diverse schools are a rarity, so go for it. If the parents and teachers are engaged, that’s what counts. You can often make up for some of the rich-kid-school bells and whistles elsewhere in your community.

Also, from my experiences as a kid, wealthier kids are... not necessarily any worse than any other kid, but their privilege is obvious, and they’re not old enough to think to be sensitive about it. It’s easy to feel like you’re never going to fit in or measure up.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:20 AM on November 6, 2017

There's an earlier comment about primary schools being local to foster community. This is so very important. Our kids were selected for a gifted program in the public school system so of course we jumped at the chance. The neighborhood it's in is a 40 minute drive away or if we accept bussing it's 3 (THREE) HOURS each way. The kids are thriving there but have no school friends and dont participate in after school sports etc because it's just too late and too far.

My second comment is that primary school i think has the most impact in the kids life based on how much the parents are involved. If you are helping with school work, doing home and supported learning, and reading etc the kids will get more out of a lower quality schooling than if you send them to a higher end school and check out. This facet is so far undervalued by the school shoppers you mention.
posted by chasles at 4:46 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

My son just started kindergarten and we had so many weird, crypto-racist interactions with people over where we were planning on sending him (public magnet school). It had the effect of making me more committed to keeping him in the majority-minority public school system in my city, because wow do I not want to raise a kid who says shit like that if I can help it.

My line is safety. If a school isn't safe (and there are a couple local schools that regrettably are not safe) then yeah, I'm not sending my kid there. If there's not a basic level of competence regarding keeping kids safe and delivering the appropriate public education all children in this country are entitled to, that's a problem. But otherwise, my kid is a white male from a middle class family where both parents have advanced degrees (in education!) and 50% of grandparents have PhDs. We've got the means and ability to fill in any gaps that arise.

So far, though, I have no complaints about his school. He's learning the foreign language that is emphasized at the school, his reading and writing is improving by leaps and bounds, he's making friends (though this kid has never met a stranger so that wasn't a concern really), and he's learning the emotional intelligence skills to deal with the fact that there are children in his class with learning challenges and behavioral disabilities. (I went to private schools and this is something I never had to learn, and I regret it.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:27 AM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm the white parent of a now-grown mixed-race child. When he was young I believed it was most important for him to be in a school with children and teachers of multiple races. I felt the same way for my white children. As adults they all have friends of various races and backgrounds, many of whom they met in that first public primary school they all attended.

Try the neighborhood school. Give it a couple of years. Get involved in helping to remedy any problems you see in the school.

And maybe you should lose those friends you mentioned.
posted by mareli at 5:37 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Consider the commute very carefully. Whether it's walking, buses or car, the shorter the daily trip to school is for your family, the happier you will all be thanks to more time to sleep, play and easier mornings. Huge impact on small children's quality of life. A great school further away is worse overall than an good school next door.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:43 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I went to a fancy and privileged school from kindergarten up through the end of high school. (To translate that from American into British, I was there from reception until the end of secondary school.) This was in Washington, DC, so my classmates included the children of ambassadors and congressmen. The school had a beautiful campus and remarkable resources, and I got a lot of personalized academic attention.

When I arrived at university, I was unquestionably ahead of my fellow freshmen academically. However, I was behind them in terms of understanding what life was like outside the bubble I had grown up in. Neither my advantages nor disadvantages were permanent, and by the end of four years, everything had pretty much evened out. I didn't graduate cum laude, but kids who had gone to less fancy schools did. Meanwhile, I had broadened my horizons and learned something about how the rest of the world lives. (Or, at least, the part of the world that goes to an Ivy League university. Admittedly, it was very much still a bubble, even if it was a larger one.)

I'm now in my forties, and looking back, I don't see any real difference in the life trajectories of my peers who went to fancy prep schools vs. state schools.

So whichever choice you make, you'll be making tradeoffs, but most of those trade-offs won't be permanent.

I think the one thing that is permanent is the childhood experience you'll be creating. Whether your kids have a good primary school experience or a bad one, they'll never get those years back. So as long as both schools seem reasonably safe and reasonably academically sound, I would encourage you to put aside your own beliefs and think about which school will make your child happier, all things considered.
posted by yankeefog at 5:48 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

We’re thinking this through right now too and wrestling with your same options (and same ambitious friends and neighbors) (and overly concerned grandparents!) in NYC.

I read this recently - “A school choice quandary: parents care more about who attends a school than about its quality, in NYC study“ which totally resonates w me regarding the comments I get from well-meaning friends - pulled a few graphs here as food for thought:

Families aren’t flocking to the most effective schools — they are looking for schools with higher-achieving students.

“Among schools with similar student populations, parents do not rank more effective schools more favorably,” write researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, Jonathan Schellenberg, and Christopher Walters. “Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction.”

“Without direct information about school effectiveness … parents may use peer characteristics as a proxy for school quality,” the study suggests. Indeed, there is evidence that families respond to information about school performance, but it’s unclear to what extent they would prioritize sophisticated measures of school quality, even if given that additional data.

Perhaps families are simply more concerned about peers than schools. Families may consider the types of students at a school as a proxy for school success — something that might be deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. It may also be due to biases, including racism.

posted by sestaaak at 6:04 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to a public elementary school which was supposed to be better academically than the elementary school in my neighborhood. It was populated by kids in a much wealthier social class than us. That resulted in me getting picked on for 6 years straight and being a social outcast (because my family was less wealthy - kids are cruel), which had catastrophic effects on my self esteem and social ability, things that still follow me to this day and affect my life 40 years later. Don't discount what you kids' social experiences will be like at the school you choose.
posted by bluesky78987 at 7:39 AM on November 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of white flight in my school district. I've started attending school board meetings in preparation of sending my kid to kindergarten next year. Test scores are definitely discussed during these school board meetings, because, as I'm sure you've seen before, anyone can present the numbers in a way to tell their own angle.

My local school does not have the highest test scores. It does have a high number of free and reduced lunch kids and English language learning students. But what my state's reporting does not show is the amount of improvement in the test scores for kids who are in the free/reduced price lunch or English learning categories, which many school board members (and I) feel is more indicative of the quality of the school than the straight score of the student body overall. That overall student body test score benefits schools that are more homogenous and better funded.

We got burned by the fancy expensive private Montessori preschool last year, and it was where many of our local university's faculty send their kids. We felt they were more about the money and the image than about teaching kids with age-appropriate behavior. It was a longer drive to get there, too. And the neighborhood it is in is also where the one city councilman lives that is in the news for trying to pass an anti-immigrant moratorium in our town. Your fancy expensive Montessori school and neighborhood may vary, but it might not.

It sounds like you had good reasons to pick your school. I know you thought long and hard about it before you picked that school. I know it feels like time is running out and you are doubting yourself because other people's reasons for picking their schools aren't as obvious or are different than yours, but not necessarily better. I assure you that the reasons you picked your school are good reasons and just as valid as their reasons. Stick to your school and, as said above, if you change your mind in the future, you can always change.
posted by jillithd at 8:10 AM on November 6, 2017

For what it's worth, my resident Rory Gilmore a) got an excellent education at the public elementary schools she attended and b) appreciates and takes advantage of the opportunities at her current fancy prep school much more than some of the lifers who have been there since K.

I agree with all the comments above about picking a school where your child will be happy and you can see your family being part of the community. Especially +1 to using the neighborhood school if you can because proximity builds relationships. We switched from a school two blocks away to a magnet program 20 min away and it was a better educational fit but she probably only had half a dozen playdates in four years because the kids were so spread out. I tried to maintain her local friendships through scouts and sports but it wasn't the same.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:45 AM on November 6, 2017

Personal opinion having been through similar choices with primary schools in Cambridge is that we went with the more diverse school and have never regretted it.
I think the people that mentioned community are spot on and it makes a huge difference to be part of a local school community. Not everyone can but if you have the time then getting involved via Governing board or whatever you feel comfortable with gives you a sense of being involved.
Personally I think if you are involved with your child's education then (a) at primary level you can help iron out any weaknesses the school may have and (b) if there's a big problem you will know and you can look at what other options are available
posted by crocomancer at 11:17 AM on November 6, 2017

I am Hispanic and have been struggling with this question for most of my kid’s school career! I want to reassure you that you aren’t bound by any one decision. My kid has been in regular public, magnet school, Catholic School, super-fancy school, as I kind of tinkered with what worked for us.

For us (middle-class mixed-ethnicity family) we found that racial diversity was awesome and useful when it was all middle-class families, but that the very worst thing for our daughter was when all the minority (esp specifically Hispanic like me) families in a school were low-income/struggling and all the white ones were middle/higher income. We had some problems with grades/behavior - “the people who are like me do this” where “this” meant not trying at school, fighting, etc. I think it’s super, super important to have /successful/ peers and families of color, more so than just looking at the raw ethnicity of the student body.

So: if the first school you’re looking at is middle class racially mixed, I say fuck the haters. But if it’s all middle class white kids and low income brown kids, from our experience, it can be really, really fucking hard on a mixed kids’ esteem and ambitions. More so even than a less diverse school where there are fewer, but more successful, families of color.
posted by corb at 1:19 PM on November 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is all so incredibly helpful! I am going to stick to my resolve (and my values!). And I hadn't really thought that this wasn't THE PERMANENT DECISION -- that we could move if we needed to, or find another option.

I hadn't thought about corb's point about there being middle-class brown people as well. The problem is is that I'm finding it hard to find many middle-class brown people who all live in a place close enough so that a school would have any concentration of these! And I'm still reluctant to send my kid to an almost all-white school. So we'll have to see how it goes . . .
posted by caoimhe at 12:12 PM on November 7, 2017

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