School Application Anxiety? Try putting 'the best' to the parent test

You've known about the deadline for secondary school applications for months. So why, with just ten days to go, are you still angsting about pressing send? You may need to separate the best school from what is best for your child

The average child in the UK will spend eleven years of their life at school. Take away school holidays and that’s around 440 weeks. Yet for many parents, the next two will feel like some of the most crucial of their child’s education.

Secondary applications are due in by 31st October and, if you are still experiencing a serious case of School Application Anxiety, you are not alone. Many of the parents who contact me looking for advice on schools tell me they are still hesitant to press send on their online application and see their first, second and third choice disappear in to the hands of the local authority. Likewise at my son’s local primary, I see faces of Year 6 parents on the school run visibly etched with, ‘How do we know we are doing the right thing?’ lines and, ‘What if we get this wrong?’ frowns.

For someone who has fallen head over heels for school data in recent years and recounts simplifying the government’s Value Added score as one of my highlights of 2013 (sad, I know, take me off your I’ve-sent-you-a-cow-not-a-card Christmas list now), it seems counterintuitive to gloss over results and urge parents to pay attention to their lower intestines. But the advice to follow gut instinct has come up time and time again in recent weeks. Just a few days ago, I tuned in to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 to listen to their phone-in entitled ‘What should a good secondary school offer?’ Barely five minutes in they were by-passing talk of As, Bs and Cs and going straight to G. G is for gut feeling.

One caller who had clearly been vetted by a highly skilled research team counselled parents to skip school Open Days altogether and frequent the local pubs, clubs and cafes favoured by the school’s sixth formers. This, he said, would give you the best feel for the school and its ethos. Perhaps in this headachy time of choice and the mounting pressure on our children (homework is at its highest level for a decade; British children are coached to compete for a career with those from emerging markets such as China), the decision to go with our heart is no bad thing.

It’s impossible to think that we can continue on the current trajectory of pressure and the pursuit of academic excellence. The bubble will burst and we need to consider what the backlash will be for our kids. The latest international league tables see British children lagging close to the bottom globally in literacy and numeracy and show that, despite the A* school culture, they have lower levels of basic skills than their grandparents. Like some bizarre academic Eurovision song contest, the Brits are getting nil points and being beaten hands down by Estonia, Poland and Slovakia.

So here's the thing: perhaps going back to basics and putting 'the best' schools to the parent test is the cure for the rise and rise of school application anxiety. As mothers and fathers, we have a unique ability to make decisions for another human being because, when it comes to our children, we really do know best.

An emphasis on basic instinct could be the ultimate way for parents to reclaim power and shape the way we prepare our children for their future.

Don’t get me wrong; taking a long hard look at a school’s individual performance is still vital. I’m not arguing for a touchy-feely abandon of tests and test results. Gillian Hargreaves, BBC Education Correspondent who was a guest on the Woman's Hour programme, highlighted the importance of accessing Ofsted reports when considering a school and even advocated picking up the phone and calling head teachers to ask questions about sometimes "confusing" results.

One thing is certain: we all want the best for our children. But before we put the head of the most academically high achieving school on speed dial, we need to consider best in the context of our child. Research by the London School of Economics published in September said that children who make it in to better schools and find themselves at the bottom of the class might suffer academically. See more about this research here:

Eleanor Mills of the Sunday Times, one of my favourite writers and a mother who recently saw her child compete with 2,000 others for the 90 places at a local grammar school in London, summed up the stress of the quest for best in a recent article, Happy or Hothoused? It is a good read for any parent wondering whether madly tutoring for the 11+ is really the right thing for their child. She writes:

Life is a marathon not a sprint — education is for life skills, for developing passions and talents, not just passing exams. Finding the right school is like horses for courses. There’s no “better” or “worse”, really. The only question that truly matters is what is going to most suit your child. Now put the extra maths paper down. It will all be OK.”

The last line gave me a little shiver because, ultimately, beyond the pursuit for good or better or best, what we really want is for it to be OK.