#LifeSchool: Picking a School, Getting In, and What To Do If It All Goes Tits Up.

Its that time again, and I hope you enjoyed last week’s renting related #LifeSchool. Once again, if you would like me to feature a topic, feel free to get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

This week’s #LifeSchool covers everything playground related, from working out the best school (or otherwise) for your cherubs, to appealing if you can’t get in, the tips below have you covered. This is a two part #LifeSchool, as we’ll cover Bullying and other issues next time.

PICKING A SCHOOL- KNOW YOUR DEADLINES IF YOU DONT WANT TO BE LEFT BEHIND

Back when I was a child, picking a school was simple. You just went to the one nearest- I certainly did.

However, we now have the wonders of Ofsted, which has meant of course that the school’s voted Outstanding and Good fill up to bursting quickly and the one’s in the lower ranks have to basically beg parent’s to send their child there.

Then, there is the added stress of catchment, and whether there are, in fact, enough school places for children in your town.

The key to getting the right school doesn’t need to be grey hair inducing as long as you keep up to date with when to get your forms in.

Most school’s now have great websites, so finding out when open days are happening is simply a case of looking online. If you can’t make a date for a school though, its always worth giving them a ring as some will work round your availability. I actually preferred seeing a school without all the pre-arranged (and often utterly bollocks and just put on to look smarmy to parents) fanfare of the official open days. Its often far more enlightening to go in on a normal day and see the school on the hop as it usually is (when they haven’t hidden the naughty kids away for the day).

Make sure to ask questions- school’s are prepared for this so don’t be shy. Does your child have a health issue or are they classed as having Special Education Needs (SEN)? If so, does the school have policy in place to cover these children, and if so, what is it? What sizes are classes? Do they offer after school care? You get the idea- if it’s something you don’t know, then ask if it’s something which could be a deal breaker.

Make use of the calendar on your mobile phone, and get your forms in for school allocation before the deadline. They do say this makes no difference, but it doesn’t hurt if your chosen school is popular to get in early.

Make sure to read the form properly too. If your chosen school is a religious school, and you happen to be religious and in their parish, then mention it (do not make this up- they can and will ask for proof). Is it set up specifically for children with SEN, hence you choosing it? Again, add this to your form. If you have siblings in the school, this is also worth making sure you include as some authorities will automatically add a child to the school list if they already have brothers or sisters in attendance.

NOT GOT THE SCHOOL FOR YOU? DON’T GIVE UP!

Its becoming more and more the case that, come Easter when school places are allocated, kids aren’t getting any of their chosen schools. That’s no reflection on your child, it’s more a case of factors including Ofsted ratings and demand outweighing supply.

Some kids have even been given places miles from home, which causes it’s own issues.

It can be the same should you move areas and need to secure new schools too.

In the case of not getting a chosen place, don’t give up.

It’s time to get smart!

All school’s have appeals processes, whereby you are required to submit either a letter or form to them within a specified amount of time from the allocation of your child’s place. Its usually 30 days but some can be 14 so make sure you check.

The Appeal’s process can be a minefield, and, of course, whilst it goes on the Local Authority (LA) will expect your child to be in some form of education if it’s not the school holidays.

The first thing you need to do is again, add mitigating reasons for why not getting your child in to the school is going to be simply unworkable for your family. We’re not talking “Ofsted said the other school is shit and I don’t want my child to go to a shit school” as despite the Government thinking Ofsted is important, we aren’t meant to use this to our advantage, appeal wise.

One reason could be a commute- do you work and the school is the opposite direction from your home and work? Does your child have SEN and long travels by bus or walking are just not possible? Do you have other children at your chosen school and the allocation means having to be in two different sides of the town at the same time twice a day? All these can be added.

If the school is out of your catchment, the above reasons can be very important. I know, from experience when we moved from Maidenhead to Reading, we got Mini into our chosen school but not Littlest, who was expected to go to a catchment school a good ten minute walk from Mini’s non catchment one. The kick in the teeth was that the catchment school was actually a bigger distance from our new home than the non-catchment one. I would not have been able to get both dropped off at once,  either.

This all went into my form, along with details of Littlest’s illnesses and that, to be fair, Mini had acted as un-official helper when he had been unwell in school before we moved, helping to calm him down as she was used to his ill health and quite often could be calmer than the staff at the old school.

Make sure you add as much evidence as possible, then, make sure you google your LA’s Appeals rules. These are fully available online, and yes, they are boring as hell, and full of jargon, but they just may make the difference if things go wrong.

In our case, we found the Diocese (who is our school’s Authority) had not played by their own set rules and timetables, and, even worse, they allowed one expert to submit new information within the Appeal Panel Hearing- a great big no no rules of appeals wise.

Yes, you read that right- you will have to attend an Appeal Hearing, with three independent LA people, a Governor or Headteacher to represent your chosen school, and a Panel Host who is supposed to be well versed on rules. The school representative will have the chance to give reason’s why the school can’t fit your child, then you will be asked to give your reason’s for being unhappy with this. You can make notes, and you can ask questions, so if they say something you know to be wrong then always voice it.

The Panel then gets to ask questions too, so keep calm, be polite and respectful at all times. At the end of the hearing, you will be told to expect a decision shortly. This can be a few hours, or a few days.

If your appeal is successful, great, but if not, this is not the time to get upset and give up either.

THERE’S SOMEONE FOR FREE ON YOUR SIDE SO USE THEM!

Think back to the Hearing. Did the Panel stick to the Appeal rules? If not, as was the case with our appeal, your next step is the Ombudsmen service.

This is a free service available online, and each Ombudsmen service covers everything from schools, to gas and electric and GP surgeries too (more on those another time).

There is a long form to fill in, so, again, make sure you get as much relevant information in as possible. It will ask you to submit any proof, so, as always, my biggest advice is to try and get as much done in writing as possible to refer back to.

The Ombudsmen Service will then contact the other party involved and ask for their response, and will come to a decision based on the information you’ve submitted so make sure you are 100% factual and polite too.

In our case, the Diocese admitted their error, and within a few weeks a school place magically appeared. Yes, you do feel a little awkward to begin with when you’ve had to do all the above, but, always keep in mind that this is your child and you are acting in their best interest.

STILL NO PLACE? WHAT NEXT?

If the above fails, you can, of course, place your child on the school’s waiting list, but this can take time to get to the top of and, if a child enters the list who is in the Catchment, has relatives in school or has other, bigger mitigating factors than yours, you can slip a few places.

It may be worth looking again at the school you were given.

To my mind, I pay no attention to Ofsted rating. Our last school did nothing, educationally outstanding, for either of my children, and had no interest in dealing with bullying. It was rated, whilst we were there and despite several parent’s filling in anonymous feedback forms from Ofsted raising serious concerns, as Outstanding.

Our new school is rated as Adequate at the moment (although it’s being reviewed soon). I chose it after speaking to people in the local area when we moved to the area, all of whom said the school seen as Outstanding (where they wanted to place Littlest) was not great and our current school was a very good, old fashioned, community school.

I spoke to both school’s about Littlest’s SEN- the Outstanding school went quiet and said they’d get back to me (and didn’t), our current school knew what was in place the moment I spoke to them.

Go back, re-look, and if you really can’t stomach it, think about Home Schooling.

Home Schooling is on the rise, popularity wise, no doubt in part due to the lack of school places. It does have issues of it’s own though, and it’s not simply a case of removing your child from the education system and taking them to the park or Museum.

You will have to register with your LA as being a Home Educator, and you will be asked to submit termly lesson plans. You will be subject to home visits, telephone calls and emails, and the LA can take you to court if they don’t feel your Home Education is acceptable, and this can mean them placing your child in whichever school they can find with places in the LA’s region.

Home Education can be rewarding, there is a wealth of support on line both local and national for Home Educators, with local meet ups, money off or free visits to educational places, and resources online which are free or cost a few pounds to subscribe to.

Its not for everyone though- if you work, then you can’t very well give up your job, and some children- Littlest included- find the line between teacher and parent is too big. It was very hard work for us, and I was very pleased when he finally won his school place!

GOOD LUCK AND REMEMBER, DON’T STRESS!

Hopefully, all will be fine and you will find your place and everyone will be happy.

For every parent who has to plead for a place, there are many more who never even have to worry.

Do your research, get your forms in promptly, and keep calm and all should be well for your child starting in their top choice of school.

Next time in part 2, what to do when things go wrong within school- Bullying, Falling Behind and how not to piss off your teachers.

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#LifeSchool: All You Need to Know About Renting

I like helping you guys out, and following from my usual tongue in cheek #BlogSchool series, I thought I’d bring you #LifeSchool too.

My intention with #LifeSchool is to give my hard come by advice from experience of dealing with the type of crap they don’t teach you in school. Yes, we get told about teen pregnancy, drugs and the like, but how many times were you taught about your rights when renting, or who to complain to about Appeals or School issues, or crap Doctors?

Exactly.

As I am a moaning bastard, who hates being ripped off or having my nearest and dearest treated like rubbish, I have long since gained a few tips and tricks on dealing with the stuff liable to make you turn grey.

Starting off today with Renting.

I’ve rented since I was 17, and have had a cavalcade of every type of Landlord and home in different areas you can find. The good, bad and money grabbing fuckwit, if you will.

If you know your rights though, you will, like me, become every dodgy Agent or Landlords worst nightmare.

MOVING IN

Moving in is stressful enough- there’s the packing, the unpacking, the breaking your back moving thousands of sodding vinyl when you could just have a sodding iPod (oh, wait, that’s just our house), but there are things to remember straight away.

Even before you pick up the keys, make sure you get a full and frank run down of all fees and expenses you are expected to fork out upfront. So, if your Landlord or Agent asks for £1,200 as a deposit, ask if there are any non refundable fees such as a key fee, a holding fee, or a credit check fee. Yes, all of these can and will possibly apply, as sadly no rules are in place to stop Agents or Landlords charging whatever they like. There is nothing worse than finding a home you love, only to find out that there is an extra £800-£1000+ to pay which you will never get back.

Be aware of the state of the property too. If possible, before you move even a rug in, go around your new home, with a trusty camera or phone, and take pictures of all the fixtures and fittings which aren’t your own. Damp patch on the wall? Log it. Marks on the carpet or lino? Write it down and take photos.

Some Agents will already have taken an Inventory, which they will send you a copy of to sign and agree, but always, always read everything before you sign. Add in any notes of items or breakages you can find, however minor. In our old house, we were told the walls in one bedroom were green and the carpet, cooker and fridge freezer were all as new, but actually the walls were cream and the other bits far from new.

It may seem petty, but at some point you will need to leave, and again, that free reign to charge what they like comes into play again.

If you  have wrecked a carpet, then make inquiries on how much like for like carpet will cost, get a quote and receipt. Think that will never happen? In one home in Maidenhead, we were told to remove a carpet by the owner, and did so, varnishing the floor. All fine right? NOPE.

On moving out, they wanted to take our entire deposit to replace the carpet. We had nothing in writing saying we could remove it and our Landlord had sudden amnesia. We visited our local carpet fitters, found the same very cheap carpet and got a quote, minus a percentage due to “Fair Wear and Tear” We only had to pay a tiny amount as we could prove the amount they wanted to scam us for was by far too much.

THE BEST ADVICE FOR ALL THINGS RENTING OR OTHERWISE

That’s another thing to always remember, no matter who you are dealing with- GET IT IN WRITING.

Its so easy to contact most people we deal with these days via email. You can then have a file system and drop all emails in it, however minor the issue.

This helped when we moved from our last property two weeks back. We had a dispute over our deposit and, as it was in a DPS (Deposit Protection Service- a government initiative to stop unscrupulous Landlords from holding your deposit themselves and holding it to ransom), we were facing months of arguments before it was released- something we couldn’t stand for as we had to hand our deposit to our new Agent. Now, Landlords know this, so they will hope you cave rather than lose a home you’ve found.

Hell no.

Our (stupid white and not new on moving in) upstairs carpet was bollocked. Not by us. We paid money to clean it, but, when we first moved in, dodgy workmen fixed our roof and dust and dirt of some 30 year vintage was able to get indoors with gay abandon. Luckily, I still had my email where I told the Agents this, and could quote this to them along with their Tenancy. Funnily enough, within 24 hours they gave the full deposit back and shelved their £90 check out fee too!

IF YOU SIGNED IT, MAKE SURE YOU READ IT FIRST

That’s another biggie which may seem dull and annoying but is worth it in the long run- make yourself aware of the major points of your Tenancy.

Has it got a break clause? These are handy for you if you hate your new home and want to move as it gives you the right to give two months notice within a Tenancy. However, as just happened to us, even if you paid £90 to resign a new Tenancy and this doesn’t run out until the end of May, if your Landlord decides, as with ours, to sell up all his properties, he can give you the same two months regardless.

Look for clauses on extra fees- like the resign fee, or maintenance fees. Got a problem that needs fixing? Many tenancies include a fair fixing period which, should your problem not be sorted in this time frame can save you money (as with the three months we waited for a new door, which gave me a £30 reduction on the aforementioned resign fee). You can also withhold rent, but this will not be popular, and its worth knowing that if a Landlord can prove you are in debt with rent, they can have your removal from their home happen in 14 days rather than taking months.

MASSIVE COCK UPS AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM

What can you do if things go very wrong?

Got a house that’s really unsafe? Then if you’ve spoken to the Landlord or Agent (over email, of course), and they still wont do anything, you can go to your local Environmental Health team at the local council. They can, and will, for free, inspect a property and can if need be take a Landlord to court and give out fines if they don’t do work to make a home safe. This costs you nothing, but bear in mind the Landlord will possibly not be best pleased and could give you notice.

HOMELESSNESS DOESN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN IF YOU’RE SMART

If you are facing homelessness, contact your local council straight away with any paperwork you have, including your eviction notice. If you have been good tenants and don’r have rent arrears, then they will give you advice, and can help with the cost of a deposit to secure a new home.

That’s a big thing to remember- keep up with rent and get receipts to prove you’ve paid. If you act responsibly, you will get more help than those who don’t pay up or wreck a home- if this is the case you will be classed as “Intentionally Homeless” and will not even be given Temporary Housing in a B&B, let alone allowed to join a Housing List.

Don’t let me worry you! Not every Agent or Landlord is a scam artist, but if things do go wrong, be polite, quote law and your rights, and you should do fine.

WHERE TO GO FOR ADVICE

If you do get stuck though, you can always contact agencies such as The Citizens Advice Bureau, the DPS Service, or Shelter- not to mention your local Housing team- for free, impartial and up to date advice.

Got a question for #LifeSchool? Get in touch, if it’s not something I’ve come up against, I will know someone who has and am always happy to learn new ways to not get scammed so will find out for you!

Next on #LifeSchool, dealing with Appeals and School related issues. How not to get your little darling turfed out of a place.

 

 

#BlogSchool: Charity Does NOT (Always) Begin on Twitter

Its that time again for #BlogSchool, so tuck your shirts in, straighten your ties and no talking at the back.

Twitter, as I have often said, can be a great tool for a number of things.

It can be used to make friends, find out information on blogging events and opportunities, and it can even be used to tell your Prime Minister to fuck off being a Knob.

It can, and has been in the past, used for charity purposes, and has done great things to get messages and awareness across and cash raised.

I’m thinking, to name a few, Team Honk, Sky Diving for Matilda Mae and the Lullaby Trust, even going back as far as Bloggers for Haiti. It also helped a pal of mine to get a One Direction member on board to make a video for a charity she was tirelessly campaigning for, and which I have supported myself, the Ruby Laura Young Fund for Neuroblastoma (they raised £500,000 in under a year, I have never seen anything like it).

Like anything though, a good thing, like the above and the legitimate charities who use Twitter can lend their hand to scam artists.

Yes, that sucks. But such is life- when something is seen as being a great resource to earn cash, you’re always going to get some sod who wishes to jump on that bandwagon for their own cause, rather than someone else’s who needs the help.

Think of Twitter charity bashing like you do those annoying PPI claim phone calls. None of us want them, very few of us will be sucked in and know we can do the claims ourselves and keep the cash. BUT for every 100 calls they make, they get a few people, usually vulnerable folk, who say, “yes, please sort my claim out” and thus they give these bandwagon jumpers free reign to pinch a huge percentage of your cash.

Twitter is the same.

All the while you get great fundraisers who are transparent and will give every single penny to a known, registered, charity, there will always be those who wish to partake of that and make up some phony buzz word topic charity whereby they will give a small percentage of whatever ill gotten gains they get.

Take #BloggersAfrica or #BloggerstoAfrica.

This little hashtag would get me thinking “aha, Oxfam/Sport Relief/Cafod are sending some very lovely and selfless bloggers out to Africa again. That’s brilliant, what nice people those bloggers are, here is £50 for their cause.

Except, when others went a little deeper, only a small, and I mean small, fraction of the £50k they are “supposedly” after raising will go to African Charity. Around £2,000 in fact, which will allegedly go to an outfit called African Impact- I call them an outfit as last I saw, they don’t have a charity number.

This cash is going into a GoFund Me page, not a legitimate source like Just Giving.

According to the ring leader, the rest of the cash goes on hotels, flights, etc etc. And a Mulberry handbag for all we know.

There is nothing, noting whatsoever, wrong with doing something charitable.

However, being clear about what you are doing, and who you are doing it for, is key. And telling people who, understandably, question you and where the cash goes to fuck off, and blocking them on Twitter is possibly not the best idea.

If you really want to help out, you don’t need to do it on your blog. Talk to your local church and help at the food bank, or just donate an extra few bits or things you get sent from brands that you wont eat. Talk to the local Salvation Army- just sitting having a cuppa once a week in a hall with a bunch of elderly and lonely folk can bring warmth to their lives, and your own.

If you have kids, join your PTA! My PTA raised over £30,000 last year through events- something not be sniffed at when budgets are being cut (bloody Dave).

Bloggers beware! If it sounds shifty, it probably is. Put down the credit card and give to a known charity instead.

And bask in the warm fuzzies you get without the publicity of twitter!