Thursday, 2 September 2010

Benedict's School

School started yesterday, September 1, in England. But not for Benedict. That's the bad news (not from Benedict's point of view; it's great news).

While England's students began a new school year, he and I went to the Museum of London to examine the many artifacts (they have over a million objects) in their collection. After 2 1/2 hours we had only gotten to the 16th century, at which point we decided that we would continue on a later date. We then wandered around the neighborhood a bit since the museum is within the City of London, a one square mile section of greater London on the River Thames. Since greater London, which includes the borough we live in, Ealing, is over 600 square miles, the City (it's always capitalized) is but a tiny part. Here is where the Romans founded the city in 43 A.D. This is where London grew, confined by the Roman walls built about 200 and rebuilt several times since. London grew within these walls for more than a 1000 years before the population expanded beyond them. And for the past several centuries the City has been the banking, insurance, and financial center of Britain and, for a good chunk of those centuries, of the world. The City  has its own Lord Mayor (not to be confused with the mayor of greater London, which includes 32 boroughs plus the City of London; it only seems confusing) and crest depicting two dragons. St. Paul's Cathedral is on the western edge and the Tower of London on the eastern edge of the City.

So far Benedict's education has consisted of visits to museums, guided tours, learning Spanish on Rosetta Stone, working through the 6th grade math textbook from St. Helen's, and endless miles of walking about the streets of London. He has library card for Ealing's libraries. All of this has been a priceless experience that can't be measured. But he does need to go to school for the short time we're here. Forgetting for the moment the academics, getting to know English kids would be a fantastic learning opportunity.

But he hasn't been assigned to a school yet. We contacted the admission's councilor months ago, but the rules don't allow her to do anything until we are actually living in Ealing and could prove that we are actual residents. In the last post I mentioned that we dropped by the town council building to drop off documentation proving our residency, and that is the last piece they needed. We filled out an application some time ago. So what's the delay?

Each of London's boroughs is semi-autonomous, it seems. Each borough has its own mayor and council, and each one runs its own schools. And rules vary among the boroughs. Ealing is one of the outer boroughs ringing London, away from the posh districts, bright lights, and tourist attractions of central London. It is the third largest borough in population (about 320,000) although only the 11th largest in area. So it is pretty densely packed. The schools simply don't have enough spaces to accommodate all the kids. As in the rest of London, there is a huge immigrant population in Ealing, and people in these groups are often in flux. So the school administrators really don't know how many students there are in each class at each school until after school begins. Children who were registered to attend school from last spring may have moved away. Those kids, like Benedict, who seek a spot at this time of year have to wait until after school begins so that the administrators can figure out what schools have space for the extra students. There must be many of these extra students like Benedict because there are seven people assigned to manage the school placements. The admission's councilor told us they may not know where to place Benedict until after September 8, and because he was born before the cut off date of September 1 he would be placed in Grade 8. We suggested that academically he would be better prepared for Grade 7 since we held him back a year when he started school. But rules are rules, and it would be up to Benedict's new teacher and Headmaster (principal) of the school to determine whether he needs to do extra work to catch up or be placed down a grade.

So where could he go to school? Children start attending high school at age eleven. The nearest high school, Elthorne Park, is only a 15 minute stroll away. The second closest, a Catholic high school (a publicly-funded 'faith' school), is only 20 minute walk away although it is in the borough of Hounslow, not Ealing. For every other high school he would have to take the bus or the tube. The admission's councilor said that she tries to place students in the school closest to where they live, which is Elthorne Park in our case, but she can't guarantee it.

Though in another borough the closest Catholic high school, Gunnersbury, can accept students from outside Hounslow. There is also a Catholic high school within Ealing, but it's more than 30 minutes away by bus. The entrance requirements for all Catholic high schools, whether private or publicly funded, are strict. Not only do they require a baptismal certificate; they also require that the family's parish priest fill out a form attesting that the family faithfully attends Mass every Sunday. Many of the Catholic schools also have entrance exams. Since there are more Catholics than there are places in schools, all Catholic schools, including Gunnersbury, are 'oversubscribed', as the Gunnersbury's admissions officer put it. The size of each class at Gunnersbury is limited to 184 students, and Grade 7 is oversubscribed by 3 and Grade 8 oversubscribed by 1. Each class alone is about the size of the entire student body of St. Helen's. Yet they seem to do an excellent job of preparing students, who score high on their exams. Coincidentally, the father of one of Erika's SU colleagues attended Gunnersbury; she said he still thinks highly of his education there and was excellent preparation for his university training as a scientist.

Ealing desperately needs new schools, and administrators have land and building plans for a new high school in the northern sector of the borough. They were all set to begin construction until the recently elected Conservative government cut off funding for education. Given all the babies and toddlers we've seen all over London in general and Ealing in particular, the future for English education does not look promising.

So all we can do is wait for a decision. Meanwhile there are museums to visit.

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