Trek or treat? How far would you go for a school commute?
If you’re stuck on the 7.08 commuter train to London Waterloo right now, spare a thought for today’s schoolchildren.
Why? Because their journeys to school could well be longer than your commute to work.
Parents are so keen to send their sons and daughters to the best schools that it’s quite usual for children to travel up to three hours there and back.
But far from finding it a burden, pupils say they enjoy their commutes. Some maintain that the journey to and from school is the only time they get to relax. They doze, play games, listen to music and even catch up on homework.
We spoke to a former Oxford High School GDST pupil whose 22-mile bus journey from her Banbury home to school took just over an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. Far from finding it tiresome she relished the time it gave her to socialise.
‘I was 11 when I started getting the bus and as well as making me more independent I made friends, not only with Oxford High girls but also with people from other schools,’ she told us. ‘It meant I had lots of friends who lived near me, which was great.’
Caroline Skinner, the Good Schools Guide’s press and PR director, drives her 11-year-old son to and from school every day – a 25-mile journey each way. Despite the time it takes and the £100 spent on petrol each week, she says the travelling time is definitely worth it.
‘We live in Hampshire but have chosen a school 25 miles away in Surrey (including a trip up the M3 in the rush hour),’ she said. ‘Finding the right school was our main priority. Olly finds concentrating difficult and we wanted an all-boys prep with very small classes.
‘The journey to school takes an hour to an hour and a quarter in the morning and about 45 minutes in the evening. It’s a very long day but Olly doesn’t mind the journey. I see it as valuable downtime for him after a hectic day. In the morning he eats his breakfast in the car and on the way back he has a snack while he listens intently to audiobooks.’
Many of the parents we spoke to reckoned that older children cope better with long commutes than younger ones. After all, when you factor in after-school activities and tea with friends who might live an hour in the opposite direction, children are often travelling hundreds of miles a week – by car, bus and train.
‘I have very strong views about this,’ said Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants. ‘I always advise parents to remember the importance of a family life when they choose schools. A long commute may be a waste of energy and time and besides, it’s important for children to have local friends.’
Another parent told us that the twice daily car journey to her sons’ school had unexpected benefits.
‘We did it because the school bus was so expensive and while I begrudged the two hours it took out of my day I realised that the drive gave my rather unforthcoming boys a space to talk to me about things that had happened at school.’
Meanwhile a Good Schools Guide writer told us that she’d heard of a parent who was so keen ‘to ensure that each of her children’s schools was a perfect match’ that she ended up doing a two-hour round trip morning and evening, criss-crossing several county boundaries each time.
‘Perish the thought of sending them all to the same place,’ she added.
In some cases, schools’ admission criteria set a limit on how far away pupils can live, either using designated postcodes or maximum distance. For example, the priority area for two Stratford-upon-Avon schools, Stratford Girls’ Grammar School and King Edward VI School, is based on a circle with a radius of 16.885 miles drawn from the clock tower in Rother Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.
In similar vein, The BRIT School in Croydon, which counts stars like Adele, Jessie J and Leona Lewis among its alumni, gives a list of designated postcodes on its website. The school says it is allowed to take a small number of applicants from outside this area if they show ‘unusual merit,’ but warns: ‘We discourage students from making a very long daily journey to and from school.’
Who has the longest school commute? Do let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Playing by the rules
Bernadette John from the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants explains how the secondary school appeals process works.
Despite all you’ve heard about competition for places at the school you want for your child, it’s still a huge shock when your secondary offer comes through for Unpopular Academy instead. But don’t despair – you have a legal right to appeal to any school named on your preference form.
First, you must accept the offer you have received. Otherwise you run the risk of having no place at all for your child in September, and appeal panels will frown on this. You can always withdraw later. Next, get on the waiting list for the schools you prefer. There is always a big shake out after National Offer Day – we’ve heard of many people getting waiting list places even into August.
Your offer paperwork will tell you how to lodge appeals for the schools you want – you can appeal to all those named on your preference form if you get none of your choices. There’s nothing to lose by doing so, because you can drop out of hearings if you win an earlier appeal. Pay close attention to the deadlines and procedures for each, which will vary. You can always return the form with a sentence saying you intend to appeal and follow this with a full appeal statement and evidence a few weeks later.
A successful appeal rests on proving either that a school has applied its admissions procedures incorrectly (rare as hen’s teeth) or that the harm done to your child by not getting a place there will be greater than that caused to all the other children by overcrowding. You need to think of specific arguments for potential harm to your child, and back these up with documentary evidence such as a doctor’s letter, educational psychologist’s report, bus timetables if it’s an impossible journey etc. Get a letter from your child’s current head explaining why he or she needs to be at the school you want and will not thrive at Unpopular Academy.
Avoid claims of sensitivity (‘all children are sensitive’, one appeal panel member told us); nor is it relevant if your child always helps old ladies across the road. Concentrate instead on academic/wellbeing reasons why your child needs to go there. It’s also wise to avoid non-factual or judgemental statements like ‘I’ve heard they are all thugs at Unpopular Academy’. And however strongly you feel, do not lie or exaggerate as you will be questioned at the hearing.
Visit the school you have been offered and find what it can’t provide, which your preferred school can. Does it cater for any special need or health issue your child has? Could they keep up a sport/instrument they excel at here? Is the peer group at the same level – for example, if you believe it caters for a lower academic ability, ask for GCSE and A level results, numbers staying into sixth form etc, which may bolster your evidence.
And be open minded – a poor local reputation can linger long after a new head/big investment has much improved the place. You never know, Unpopular Academy may not be as bad as you thought.
The local authority will respond with a document explaining why your child was refused a place. We will discuss how to deal with this and how to prepare for an appeal hearing in our March newsletter.