Blog

Applying for school places out of normal age group: a farce in several acts

Back in July last year I blogged about the response I got from our first choice of school for the twins – it was a clear and simple “yes” from the head teacher that the school would support our request for the twins to start school in reception at age 5 (compulsory school age, CSA). I explained in a previous blog post why we wanted to do this. Our local authority (Birmingham City Council, BCC) allows us to put up to three schools down in order of preference on primary/infant school applications. I had considered only putting down our first choice, since we are highly unlikely to not get places due to sibling priority and the proximity of our address to school. But if I didn’t put down two more schools, and for some strange reason we weren’t allocated places at the first choice, then we could end up with places at a random school (or, worse still, schoolS) way out of our local area, and I thought it wasn’t worth the risk for the sake of a bit of extra admin on my behalf. I also wanted to get a feel for how easy it was to get approval for a CSA start in our local area, beyond just the one school, as it can be so variable nationally. Oh how I ended up going down a rabbit hole, which cost me more than a bit of extra admin time! However, I feel at least by blogging about my experience I can show how crazy the “system” (or rather lack thereof) is and hopefully help others who are trying to do the same.

So in September I emailed the other two most local schools – let’s call them School 2 and School 3 – with the same text that I had used in my email to School 1 previously. I got a fairly speedy reply from an office assistant at each school. It’s worth bearing in mind that both these schools are their own admissions authorities (rather than BCC) – School 2 is voluntary aided so the authority is the governing body (like School 1 is); School 3 is an academy, so the authority is the academy trust.  

School 2 said that they only become involved in requests for admissions out of normal age group once they have received applications via the BCC application form. I queried this because School 1 had been very willing to commit to a “yes” before application, and I explained that I didn’t want to waste a school’s time by applying to them if they were going to say “no”. She replied that they are not a school that refuses these requests, however she couldn’t guarantee the answer before reading our applications. OK…. fairly promising, I thought, but clearly the only way I’m getting an answer is to apply and see. So this could go down as our second choice.

School 3 said something pretty similar: if I’d like them to consider our request, I had to complete the reception application form as normal and return it to them with our request and any supporting information that I wished to be considered. Now I (wrongly) assumed that this meant the BCC application form – it turns out they have their own form as well (more on this below). So I figured it was worth putting this school as third choice, as any others would be getting too far away from home, except a fourth one that’s about the same distance away but which I already knew, from talking to neighbours with a summerborn child, wasn’t very knowledgable about CSA starts.

At this point I wasn’t entirely sure how I needed to go about requesting admission out of normal age group. Given what all the schools had said, I thought I needed to apply this year, have the requests approved (or not), and then reapply next year, rather than just not applying at all this year, but I couldn’t find an answer on the BCC website for how I actually had to submit our request in the application form. So I thought I’d email the BCC admissions team, and whilst I was at it, I decided to ask them to clarify whether these schools really couldn’t give me an answer before seeing our requests via the BCC application forms. I suspected that they’d just say it’s up to them and BCC don’t have any influence on them, but I thought it was worth making the point to the council that I was getting conflicting info from different schools on this, and that I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time if they were going to decline our requests. I got no reply in a couple of weeks, so I chased it up, and got a reply from an office junior who assured me she had passed it to her seniors and that someone would be in contact shortly. Still nothing……

Anyway, I decided to ask School 1 if they knew the procedure for applying for a CSA start with BCC. The very helpful admin manager said that we should apply as normal this year, and that she would email BCC now to say that they were supportive of a CSA reception start if we applied again next year. After some more searching I eventually found a page on BCC’s website about how to do an application for “deferred entry”. The School Admissions Code (2014) uses “deferred entry” to mean starting school in reception part way through the school year in which a child has turned 4 in the September, and “admission out of normal age group” to mean starting school in reception in the September after the child has turned 5. This probably contributed to my confusion – I don’t understand why BCC have to call it deferred entry when they mean admission out of normal age group. The schools have all called it deferred entry too, so I guess this is just what it has come to mean. The way to request it was to simply send an email to a specific deferred entry address with our reasons and any supporting evidence, alongside filling in the standard application form. So that’s what I did for each twin in mid October.

A few weeks after the application deadline, in early February this year, I got an email from D, the School Admissions Officer (Primary Lead) at BCC, in reply to my application email, which said the following:

  • Sorry for a lengthy delay in responding to me. [Does this mean to my original email asking about the process back in September? I think probably yes given the rest of the content of the email, which is a bit late now, but nevermind, I figured it out.]
  • Confirmation that all 3 schools are their own admissions authorities and therefore the decisions to approve or decline our requests lies with them. [OK, it would be helpful if they could tell me in advance of application, but good to have confirmation.]
  • Acknowledgment that School 1 has agreed to our request. [Does this mean as told by me, or did she see an email from the school?]
  • BCC are happy to go along with whatever schools say to these requests. [Yay for anyone else applying in Brum to supportive schools!]
  • I need to forward to D the written approvals from the 3 schools, or arrange for them to email her with their approvals, and then she can update the records to indicate that the twins are deferred entry pupils and then they would contact us in October/November to apply again for next year.

So this answered my questions from before I applied, but then it raised the question of why I needed to be getting in touch with the schools (particularly 2 and 3) again, because the last I heard from them, I’d reached a dead end – they were waiting to receive our applications before giving me any answers! Did I have to do more chasing then?! I LOLed at this, then calmed down and wrote an email to D to clarify. No reply arrived, so after a week or so, I checked with School 1 that she had definitely emailed their approval, because it wasn’t clear if D had seen this from her or from me saying that they had agreed. I then emailed Schools 2 and 3 to see if they now had an answer to our request that I could forward to D. 

School 2 replied saying that they would normally receive notification of our request from D, but that they hadn’t, so she would follow this up with D, and that I could also reply to D saying that they were still waiting to see our request. Talk about wild goose chase! School 3 replied saying that they hadn’t received anything from BCC either, but that they also couldn’t see our school-specific application form for the twins. I replied that I hadn’t realised there was a separate application form to submit as well as the BCC one – I’ve never had to do this for any other school applications, and I think I was so focussed on reading policies on school websites about admission out of normal age group that I must have missed this instruction on their website. Face palm! I then asked if I could still apply (late) to them this year, given that if they approve a CSA start then I’d need to apply again next year anyway, and at that point I would make sure to fill in their specific form too. A quick reply said that this was fine, so I filled in two forms and sent them back – they didn’t ask any questions that I hadn’t already filled in on the BCC form, but at least now this school definitely has our details and request. This separate form situation highlights the fact that we have this strange system with academies, schools that are under national government power, as well as community and voluntary aided/controlled schools, which are under local government power, but all are part of the same local government application process.

At this point, I don’t have any more answers than I did in September. I understand that the BCC admissions team are probably all snowed under, working from home and maybe even juggling their own children being around. This was probably always going to be a tricky year to make this application. I’m willing and able to write emails and read/understand replies, to try and find out what needs to be done, but others may find this kind of thing harder. I can’t stand being thrown around from one person to another, never properly finding out what’s really happening, and everyone seems to have their own version of what happens when and how. Thankfully I’m confident that all will be well with School 1, but this would have been a very stressful time for us had we not have had that reassuring conversation back in July with the head teacher. 

I now still await answers from Schools 2 and 3, and I wonder what will happen first: we get places at School 1 on offer day in April (which we will then decline and reapply for next year); or we get answers from Schools 2 and 3. Watch this space!

Lockdown again

I wrote a blog post back in May about our experience of the first UK lockdown that started in March last year. Overall we coped alright – some things were harder but some things were easier for us, so overall we came out of it feeling fairly resilient. It’s safe to say though that we are not feeling the same way now in the third national lockdown. As always on this blog, I tend to write as I find it therapeutic, and if anyone else gets something from it too then I’m happy to share my thoughts. I’ve heard a lot of people say (virtually) how much harder it is this time, whether they struggled last time or not. So I don’t think we are alone, and it does help me to know this.

In the first week of January we were OK – exhausted but OK. Normally the Christmas holidays are a good time for us to rest, because we spend a week-ish at each of our parents’ houses for Christmas and new year. Obviously we just stayed at home this year, and not only that, but we came down with Covid-19. The only real explanation is that it came home from school (or possibly nursery) via an asymptomatic child, as we’d had no contact with anyone else. My main symptom was exhaustion, and Tom’s was nasal congestion; none of the children showed any symptoms. Thankfully we got away very lightly with symptoms, but we didn’t get chance to completely rest, because looking after 4 kids under 10, especially when they can’t go out the house to let off steam, doesn’t allow it, and of course we couldn’t get any external help. Tom ended up doing more than me, because he had more energy at the time, although I think this then just meant he crashed later.

During our isolation there was no pressure for either of us to work, as Tom had annual leave for the school holidays and I always wind my work down to the minimum in the holidays. It ended just as the boys were due to go back to school, but then of course they didn’t, and because we reckon we caught the virus from school, I had been hesitant about the prospect of sending them back anyway, since this could easily happen to someone more vulnerable than us. I mean they’d definitely be happier at school because they love it, but not to the detriment of other people’s risk of serious illness. Even though the twins could have gone to nursery for part of the week, we decided to keep them off too. We survived the first week of all being at home with Tom back at work in our bedroom, the kids doing some learning/playing etc., and me fitting in whatever hours I could for my business to keep it ticking over. Similar to last time that school was closed to us, the boys have ended up doing a mixture of school set activities that they like (which was all set up and ready to go in an online system this time) and their own ideas for learning that come up in our daily experiences and conversations.

Tom had been told by the university he works for that all staff were now key workers, and that they would support them to get school places if needed, so he felt under pressure to work all his hours, whereas in the first lockdown they were told it was “best endeavours”. He did actually work full hours the majority of weeks, but knowing there was no leeway now was stressful. I was overwhelmed by trying to keep the twins from disturbing him whilst also trying to facilitate the boys’ (mainly Joel’s) learning. Family walks at lunchtime seemed more stressful than they had been in the summer, because it took us ages to tog up and the twins wanted to walk the whole way at their pace, meaning we were clock watching to get back for Tom to work his hours.

In addition our house suddenly felt very small. I hadn’t realised just how much I relied on the garden last spring and summer to keep the kids out of Tom’s way. We would spend entire afternoons out there. Andrew accesses any of the online learning he wants to do on our family computer in the living room, which is also our “TV” – we don’t watch live TV, we just access iPlayer or other channels on their websites. This leaves me to work with Joel (with the iPad if I need to access anything online) in their bedroom just across the landing – we have a 3 storey house with kitchen/diner and my work room on the ground floor, living room and one bedroom on the first floor, and two bedrooms on the second floor. If the twins are playing nicely then Andrew can tolerate them in with him, but Joel can’t focus if they are within ear shot of us. If they go upstairs they just invade our bedroom where Tom works, and if they go downstairs it’s not safe on their own and there’s no floor space to do much anyway.

Now if we were to home educate in the more long term, we would think about how we could sort rooms, devices, resources, furniture etc. to accommodate this, and I would probably give up my work room which isn’t currently suitable for any children without supervision. But in the short term we have to work with what we’ve got, and in that first week of lockdown it felt pretty impossible for any of us to actually do what we needed to do properly, and I was like some kind of referee for it all when it started to go crazy.

If I had more time and space to get my head around it, I could come up with ways to include all the children in the same activities, although I think this would be a challenge. Before lockdown we had started to work with Joel’s teachers to see if he needs a plan for more support, maybe he has some kind of neurodiversity such as dyslexia – this is a whole other topic that I will blog about at some point. To access any kind of learning that requires him to read or write, he needs full time 1:1 support from me otherwise he gives up in frustration or gets defensive if I try later to offer him gentle feedback on things like his (fascinating) spelling. I have often wondered where his personality ends and some kind of cognitive difficulty begins, but since he’s started junior school this has made us and his teachers question if he needs more support at school. On the other hand, Andrew works independently – his reading and writing skills allow him to access everything he wants to learn and he is highly motivated when it’s challenging enough for him (so he’s given up with a lot of the school set work for a totally different reason from Joel). So involving both boys with these wildly different abilities and interests in the same activities, plus a couple of three year olds also with very different interests and personalities, will need more than a few weeks of overwhelm for me to get my head around!

With all the stress and overwhelm of work and family life whilst feeling like we didn’t really get over Covid completely, we both felt pretty terrible physically and mentally by the end of the weekend that followed this first week of lockdown. Tom decided to tell work, which was brave and absolutely the thing we needed to do. Thankfully his bosses were very understanding, and gave him a week off sick for Covid/stress, which was reassuring given the message from higher up that he’s a key worker. This gave us a bit of head space to regroup and decide what we could do to help ourselves in the situation. We came to the conclusion that taking the twins to nursery for their 15 hours a week was probably the most help for the least risk. We’re not worried about the twins bringing Covid home because we’re immune for a while now, and given that none of us are going near other people except for the twins at nursery, we pose little extra risk to the others at nursery if it’s going to be open anyway. I checked with the nursery manager whether they were happy to be open to everyone, and she said yes, they wanted to help any families who needed them. There were never more than 10 children there at a time, and a few aren’t going at the moment, so it’s a tiny bubble.

But our decision wasn’t easy. I totally understand why we have this strong “stay at home” message – the NHS is overwhelmed, and any contact we have with other people could add to this pressure and ultimately someone could die. I totally agree with schools and nurseries needing to have as few children in them as at all possible. I have no issues whatsoever with our school’s stance that children are only entitled to on-site provision if both their parents (or one if single) are key workers who aren’t working at home, only on the days that they are doing so, and those who are really vulnerable. And yet the twins going to nursery was important for sustaining us physically and mentally as a family at that point. How on Earth do I reconcile these two things in my head?! I struggle to know when self-care becomes selfishness. Why should our happiness and mental health trump a nursery worker’s risk of becoming seriously ill or worse? Why should I take advantage of nurseries being open to all when others don’t have this option? When I first heard that early years was staying open to all, I thought “phew”! But the more I thought about it, the more I doubted the reasons and whether it was a good idea for us to be participating in that.

So the twins did their three days of five hours at nursery last week, and absolutely loved it. They were excited to go back after over a month off, and it helped both them and us. We got to the end of the week and felt so much lighter and able to cope than we had. Even on the two days that they didn’t go, I found it easier than before to manage the situation at home. We decided to scrap family walks except at weekends, and instead we’d all get out for a walk or cycle in various combinations of the six of us throughout the day. I got back my enjoyment of setting up various simple activities and suggestions of what they might like to do, especially for managing the twins, which I just had such a mental block with the week before. The space issue at home is still difficult, but I’ve been able to make some small changes and the kids have settled down a bit into working with what we have. Yet I still felt guilty that we needed to potentially put others at risk in order to get us back on track.

It’s been a snow day today so nursery was rightly closed due to dangerous travel conditions, and again I’ve felt much better than 2 weeks ago when we were both burnt out, so I’ve been able to cope with all of us at home, keeping the kids out of Tom’s way and still getting some semblance of education in. I think just having that bit of respite and space to think more clearly, has made me less overwhelmed and fearful of going forwards. Don’t get me wrong, life is still hard, but we feel in a better place to tackle it.

This Thursday is the day that early years providers have to submit the funding forms to the council to claim this term’s funded places for 3 year olds. So if the twins don’t go on Wednesday (their nearest regular day to Thursday attendance) then we could lose our funded places for this term, or the nursery would have to fudge it and I don’t want to put them in that position. Once the snow is gone, they can go later this week, so at least we will keep our options open for the rest of the term. We can see how things go, and maybe the twins can alternate weeks or something depending on how exhausted I am.

For us I think there have been a few factors that led to the imposition of this lockdown feeling much harder than the first did. None of them seem huge in themselves, but added together it was a shock to our systems.

  • Burnout from months of parenting alone, with a few weeks of respite in the summer holidays when we could stay with grandparents.
  • Exhaustion from the aftermath of Covid infections and no help (obviously!) during our isolation.
  • Winter weather meaning the garden is less useful – we still go out daily for as much fresh air as possible, but we don’t hang out for several hours at a time.
  • Expectations at work being much higher than before, now that all staff are called key workers, and a higher workload due to redundancies, stretched teams, long term solo working in a less than optimal environment etc.
  • Adrenaline from the newness and unprecedented nature of the start of the pandemic has worn off- the initial sprint is over, we’re now in the depths of a marathon.

I hope going forward that we can get to the end of the marathon as best we can, being aware of our own limits and limitations, without impacting on others if at all possible. Let’s see how we do with this ridiculously difficult balancing act. I guess this whole blog post, having written it all down, is a reminder to us, and maybe anyone reading this, that “it’s ok to not be ok” as the saying goes.

Is now our time to say goodbye to car ownership?

Back in February I wrote a blog post just after we’d bought our electric longtail cargo bike, known to us as Mike. That purchase was a key point in our journey towards the possibility of not owning a car. In that blog post I asked the question whether we could go car free, although it’s probably more accurate to talk about car ownership rather than living completely car free, because it could well be that occasionally hiring a car would feature in our transport plan.

Well the world has changed a bit since February hasn’t it?! Not long after I wrote that blog post the twins got chicken pox one after the other, so we didn’t go anywhere with them for a few weeks, and then of course this ran into the UK national lockdown that started in March. As a family we were so glad that we were still allowed some daily exercise outdoors, and we got into a pattern of daily lunchtime walks on weekdays and daily bike rides at weekends and in the holidays when Tom was off work. In life before Covid, cycling had been mostly about transport and utility for us, but in lockdown it was primarily about leisure and exercise. 

We are so grateful that we got the cargo bike just before the world turned upside down, because it really did allow us to do so much more than we would have managed with the old trailer set up. We absolutely loved the quiet roads in lockdown too. The boys gained so much confidence riding on roads, as Tom had the time and space to give them some lessons on how to do it properly. They built up their stamina over the months, and we built up our knowledge of family-friendly local routes to parks and other useful places that would open again after lockdown. Instead of just going the most direct route, which is what I’d mostly do when walking, or the most main-road route, which is what I’d do when driving, I learned to think about how we could get from A to B using as many quiet residential roads and cycle / shared space paths as possible. We also started to think about adapting our bike set-up over the next couple of years – once the boys are in the next size up bikes, those will be the same size as is suitable for me, so we could potentially own 2 bikes that size between the 3 of us plus a tandem/triplet for whole family trips, particularly helpful on routes that aren’t so suitable for them riding solo. I really like the look of the Circe Helios triplet which goes small enough for the twins too. They learned to ride their pedal bikes over the summer, and they are now gaining confidence with plenty of empty car park riding practice, so a tandem would help them too in time. Obviously I’d rather Covid hadn’t have happened, but the situation did give us opportunities too, particularly with family cycling.

By September and the reopening of schools, we got to a point that we could say we were completely able to live car free in the city, although rare trips out of town would be hard, especially with public transport being limited by Covid restrictions. Tom was picking up a fortnightly click and collect Asda order in the car, which he could have done on the cargo bike (plus trailer), but we felt it was necessary to keep the car (battery, brakes etc.) ticking over rather than sitting on the drive unused for weeks on end. We used it for some trips out of town in October half term to rural locations like National Trust land for walks. Then after half term Tom switched to supermarket deliveries because the lack of social distancing and general disregard for rules was so rife at Asda that he didn’t want to go near it anymore, even just to collect shopping. We always used to shop little and often at Aldi by (standard) bike before Covid, but we changed to going as infrequently as possible during the first lockdown, so switched to Asda as Aldi don’t do click and collect, as well as getting all our fresh fruit and veg delivered weekly by the Pedalling Pantry on cargo bike. Once Covid is under control we can go back to more frequent trips to Aldi.

Consequently our car sat unused for all of November and into December. I planned a morning out with the twins to meet my parents for a walk at a local National Trust place half way between us in the second week of December. It was in the back of my mind whether I’d have problems starting it, but it was fine…. until a couple of miles from the destination! It suddenly went into limp mode, in which it only allows you to drive about 30mph maximum in order to find somewhere to stop safely. I called the RAC and the mechanic located the problem in the turbo – our car is an “eco” model which has a small engine relative to its size (small 7-seater), so relies on an additional turbo to boost it. I was able to drive it (slowly) home, then we waited a week for a slot at the local garage. They quoted a large sum of money to replace the turbo, as the RAC guy had also said would be the case.

Nice coffee from the bakery near to where I managed to park the broken down car!

So we now have the dilemma as to whether to get it fixed or not. It’s 9 years old, but has done nearly 130,000 miles, because it was a taxi before we bought it and put about 10,000 miles on it in 4 years. It seems like a lot of money to fix it relative to what it’s probably worth now and what we paid for it. Tom has been doing some research to get a rough idea of what we might be able to sell it for. He even took it to We Buy Any Car which has an office down the road, and, as we thought, it wasn’t a lot because it’s a quick and easy sale, though we could get more if we put more time and effort in ourselves to sell it, of course being totally up front about the engine fault. We suspected that at some point we would face this exact situation of a hefty repair bill, and at that point we would ditch car ownership, although we were hoping it might last a couple more years. In some ways it’s good timing though, because we never even planned to go very far from home this year in the Christmas holidays, so we don’t feel under pressure to make a quick decision.

 Our current plan is to have a trial year of not owning a car. This break down has given us a good opportunity to give it a go and actually live through the pros and cons of life without a car of our own. Financially we think it’s probably fairly even, by the time we’ve paid for hire cars, train tickets etc. to do our out of town journeys to stay with family (once it’s possible again) and days out in the holidays. But it will be interesting to see if our hypothetical calculations for not owning a car, which we have considered for several years, are accurate, and how they actually compare with the cost of repair and the money we’ve spent owning a (relatively cheap) car in previous years – it’s not just about the totals but also the expected versus unpredictable costs of each scenario and how easy/hard they are to cope with in terms of cash flow. We can also see what the non-financial factors like convenience, practicalities etc. are like in reality. We will try selling the car over the next couple of months, and if we don’t get any (decent) offers for it then we can always SORN it and keep it on the drive in case we do decide it’s worth fixing at any point in our trial. 

This doesn’t feel very daunting at the moment because we can’t actually go very far anyway, and it looks like this will be the case for a good few months still. If we are allowed to go away and stay with family at Easter then this would probably be the first point that we’d need to do something about long-distance transport. I still have reservations about days out in the holidays with the children on my own, but this probably won’t be an issue until the summer. I’d need to build up confidence with public transport routes out of town, or investigate whether our 4 car seats would fit in any of the local car club cars with me driving – I don’t think they currently do, but things may change. In another couple of years both these options seem less daunting because the twins will be older so will have more walking stamina and awareness of danger, plus the boys won’t need car seats at all and the twins will have outgrown their bulky extended rear facing seats. 

So here we are, at the end of a crazy year, but one that’s taught us some things and made us think outside of the “normal life” box. We don’t have a working car, and at the moment we don’t want or need one. We can’t afford a brand new one, either outright sale or leased, and our relatively small budget doesn’t stretch far in terms of second hand reliability (fewer miles on it means more expensive). We’re not saying we will never own a car again, it could well be that in future we decide it is actually worth owning one (probably not our current one), but for now we are happy to be embarking on this next part of our journey.

Birthday cakes – 2020

Well what a weird year of birthdays that was! Andrew had a normal birthday in January, but the twins’ and Joel’s birthdays later in the year were in the first lockdown and with other tight restrictions on what we could do.

Andrew’s 9th birthday

He wanted a plain vanilla cake, with vanilla buttercream icing and lots of sweets all over it. I also decided to try a chocolate drip effect around the edge for the first time.

Samuel and Naomi’s 3rd birthday

They were really into Go Jetters on CBeebies at the time, and when I asked them what they’d like on their birthday cakes, this was a clear winner. I shaped the vanilla sponge into two 3s, and the base of each of the faces was a shop-bought oaty biscuit.

Joel’s 8th birthday

He asked for a Lego Ninjago cake. The red and green ninjas are his favourite two, and I shaped them into an 8 too.

Starting reception at compulsory school age: it’s a yes from first preference school

Today is the start of the school summer holidays, and what a weird summer term this has been! Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the boys haven’t been at school since mid March. As I blogged about recently, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experience home ed, albeit a more restricted version than we would have in normal times. Back at the start of the school year in September, I wrote a blog post to introduce our journey of applying for our summer born twins to start reception at compulsory school age (CSA – 5 years old). It had been my intention to catch the head teacher of the school the boys go to in the playground some time during the summer term to talk about this. Of course that wasn’t possible in the end. Yet I still wanted to try to get a feel for her position on this before the application round opens in October later this year, because if it was going to prove difficult at this school, then I would need time to look around other local schools and talk to their head teachers before the application round closes. I didn’t know when would be a good time to email, given how stressful her job must be at the moment, so I sent the email below, emphasising that I didn’t expect her to reply quickly.

I thought it would be helpful to publish the email I sent here, in case it helps anyone else who is thinking of going through the process to ask the right question. We as parents have the legal right to not send our children to school until the September after their 5th birthday; the question that a school admissions authority (in this case it is the school rather than the LEA because it’s a voluntary aided school) has to answer is: Is it in the child(ren)’s best interests to be in reception or year 1 when they start at CSA?

Dear Mrs W,

First I’d like to express our thanks for all your hard work over the past months. We have been impressed at how well the unprecedented crisis has been managed by the school staff. 

I’m sure you’re still very busy with the end of term and plans for the autumn, so I do appreciate that replying to this email probably isn’t high on your priority list. I was hoping to catch you at school when dropping off Andrew and Joel, and speak in person sometime during this summer term, but obviously that hasn’t been possible. 

I am writing about our twins’ school place application. They were born in June 2017; therefore we are eligible to apply for school places in the forthcoming admissions round which ends in January 2021, for them to start reception aged 4 years in September 2021. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, compulsory school age isn’t until the beginning of the term after a child’s 5th birthday. Furthermore, the School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17 states that “the parents of a summer born child may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their 5th birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1.”

I strongly believe that it is in our twins’ best interests to start school at compulsory school age, for a variety of reasons which I am happy to discuss. Therefore they won’t be attending school until the September after their 5th birthday (2022). Moreover, I strongly believe that reception is a vital year of education for children, and therefore it is in their best interests to not miss out on this important foundation, to not go straight into year 1. 

So my question is: would BVPS support a request for our summer born children to be admitted out of their normal age group, to start school at compulsory school age in reception?

I look forward to hearing from you in due course.
Best wishes,

Ruth

I had a lovely phone call from the head teacher yesterday afternoon. I hadn’t necessarily been expecting to hear back before the summer holidays, but she said it was in fact a pretty easy and quick question to answer! Yes, she’s right, when a head teacher understands the question correctly, it is indeed simple. She said that she has never declined a request to admit a summer born child out of their normal age group, because she takes the view that the parents know the child best and she won’t question that. She absolutely agrees that reception year is essential, it’s called early years foundation for good reason, and to miss out on this by going straight into year 1 would be a really bad idea.

I’m so relieved that the school we have got on with so well over the past 5 years is also on our wavelength in this respect. She also gave me details of what I need to do in terms of the administration of applying for school places – in Birmingham (though it varies!) I still have to apply in this coming round, adding a note that I intend to decelerate them, then apply again the following year, when it would be considered as a fresh application with the same criteria as the year before (our address and sibling preference mean we would get places in either year).

So, as I had hoped, it turns out I don’t have a lot to write about this process. Not everyone is so lucky though, as the Flexible School Admissions Facebook group can attest. If you need support on this, I’d highly recommend this group.

We’re now looking forward to two years of nursery for the twins, starting in September. An extra year of play in life – here we come!

Our family’s life in strange times – not harder, nor easier, just different

For a while now I’ve been meaning to blog about our experience as a family of these strange times that we’re living through at the moment during the Covid-19 pandemic. As with all my blogs, it’s partly just therapy for me, to get my thoughts out of my head and to be able to look back on them, and partly because other people may like to read them and get something from it. Of course I haven’t exactly had loads of time to do this, so it’s taken me a couple of months to get round to it!

I think the first thing to say though is that in the grand scheme of things, our life as a family hasn’t changed as radically as I’m sure it has for many. We are very grateful that we still have one steady income, and another that we don’t rely on for daily living costs, which fluctuates depending on the amount of time I have around looking after the kids even in normal times. Our pace of life is similar to before the social distancing measures came in to effect – we don’t feel like overall we’ve slowed down or sped up, just done some things differently. We parents aren’t really sociable anyway – our interaction with adults was mainly at work for Tom and brief conversations at groups and school gates for me; our leisure time as a family was mainly spent at parks and other free / low cost outdoor spaces; Tom had a short commute on bike or foot; and our kids didn’t do loads of out of school activities. We don’t feel like we’ve had to make huge changes other than the boys not going to school, Tom working from home, and us all not being able to see close family. It could have been a lot harder to adjust. I thought I’d write about the things we’ve found hardest first, and then finish with the positives.

Probably the hardest thing for us as a family has been not seeing our immediate extended family. We used to see my parents at least once a week as they came to our house on Wednesdays, and sometimes an extra day or we’d go there at the weekend or a day in the holidays. We used to see my parents in law once every half term roughly, for a few days to a week at a time – at Christmas, Easter and August we go to stay with them, and they come up to us for family birthdays in between. Of course we’ve not seen any of them in person since March or January. The kids all have a great bond with all four grandparents. Although we keep in touch via Skype and Facebook portal, it’s not the same for the kids, as they don’t seem to “get” video calls like they do face to face interaction, particularly group calls, though one/two kids at a time is less chaotic and do they get more out of it then. 

On Facebook portal with Grandparents and sometimes cousins too

Although the boys don’t mention it much, they have talked about wanting to see their friends when this is all over. I asked them recently whether they wanted to go back to school in July if it was possible. They both said to see their friends it would be good. Joel had a couple of chats with his best friend a few weeks ago when they came our way on their daily exercise and stood at the end of our drive as we stood at the front door, but this arrangement didn’t really cut it because Joel just wanted to play rather than stand and chat like adults. As I said, video calling hasn’t really worked for them, and I think part of the problem is just that, it’s a chat rather than actually playing with each other. A good thing about having three siblings each is that our kids do have each other to play with. Although they do have conflicts, as is inevitable with siblings, they generally all get on well, and that’s continued to be the case even in this strange situation. It also helps that we have neighbours with kids of similar ages, who they’ve been able to shout across the fences to, so have had a small amount of social interaction with other children at a distance. 

I know we are now freer to spend unlimited time outdoors, but for 8 weeks we weren’t allowed to play in the park or hang around anywhere outside for long periods of time. Thankfully the kids all like walking and cycling, so at least we could get out and keep them moving, getting fresh air and burning off some of their energy, but it did get a little boring for them. In the week we still don’t get much chance to spend lots of time out of the house (though I’m thankful we have a garden for playing in and a drive for balance biking on) because we are limited by Tom’s core working hours. But at least at the weekend we can stop at parks and have a run around, climb trees, kick a football etc. away from others. They missed this freedom and so did we. 

Family bike ride one lunch time

For me personally I’ve had to learn to accept the challenges of juggling the demands of four kids who are all very different in personality, preferred learning style, body clock, interests and attention span. At first I got constantly frustrated by this situation, but I’m slowly coming around to how I can manage it as best possible whilst accepting I can’t be perfect. In the week it’s mainly down to me to look after the four of them, because Tom’s work is full time and I’m self employed (part time in a very flexible way) so it makes sense for us to do this. Tom takes care of the twins after breakfast for an hour. They go out on the (carless) drive when they’re ready so the twins can ride their bikes. This allows me to focus entirely on Joel, who really needs this input; we are both morning people and his attention span is best then. Tom also does most of the toileting/nappying with the twins during his lunchbreak and other short breaks. I’d love to be able to completely go with the flow with the boys’ learning, and to a great extent we do, but you can guarantee that Joel has a moment of brilliance or shows a keen interest in something else that we could investigate just as I’m being pulled away by a twin wanting to do a jigsaw with me, or Andrew wants to tell me all about what he’s just found out about some intricate topic of science! We’ve all had to learn to be more patient, and my ability to multi task and switch from once task to another and quickly back again (multiple times) has been severely tested. I’ve had to split myself in four, which obviously can’t literally happen even though I wish it could. When the boys used to be at school I could focus on splitting myself in two during the daytime and then focus my attention on the boys after school. Now that they’re learning at home full time, the juggle is much harder. I’m very grateful to grandparents who have helped me out – science (especially Chemistry) and KS3 level maths for Andrew, and spellings and film making out of his story writing for Joel. 

Learning with Granny and Grandad on Facebook portal

Yet for us it hasn’t all been harder than before the pandemic, there has been positivity. We have realised how thankful we are for all we have that has helped keep life relatively stable for us. A house and jobs mean we can provide the basic necessities of food and shelter for our family without fear; this means a lot at the moment. The house also includes a garden, which, although not huge, has allowed us to be outside beyond our daily exercise.

On the point of exercise, we’ve been able to do a lot of cycling as a family, even more so than before. The roads have been quiet, so we’ve been able to go places on roads that I wouldn’t normally dare to on my own with the kids, or even all of us at weekends. The boys have had a fantastic opportunity to gain some skills of cycling as a form of transport, with their dad being well experienced on this subject to teach them. We’ve used the excellent new(ish) cycling infrastructure that is the blue route from the University of Birmingham in to the city centre along the A38. Although we’ve not been all the way in to town (because there’s nothing to do there at the moment!) we’ve had chance to scope out the route, build up stamina, and gain the confidence that we can do this ride in future as a means of going in to town together. We were already in to cycling (and we are SOOOO glad that we got the Tern GSD in February in the end), but we are encouraged too at how much cycling is on the radar locally as an alternative to public transport, so hopefully others will also get in to it, and we may all see some improvements in cycling infrastructure as a result. I hope that’s a positive thing to come out of this pandemic. 

Exploring new places on bike

I personally have really appreciated the chance to have a go at home education, though I do understand that this isn’t exactly like it would be in normal times, as we could do more out of home activities such as museums, libraries, groups etc. Homeschooling seems to be the word used by the majority of parents suddenly finding themselves in this situation, but I’ve never been keen on this word. School is school, home is home; both are places where education can happen, but home will never be school and school will never be home – they are very different environments. I prefer to think of it as school education and home education. I’ve written about my views on this before on this blog. 

Our kids’ learning isn’t normally confined to just what they do at school, but we did choose to outsource some of their education to our school for 6 hours a day in term time. For both the boys, we didn’t just send them to school in reception because we have to. We weighed up the pros and cons of full time home learning versus some school learning and home learning, and decided that overall the best option to try at the time was school, for each of them as individuals and us as a family, acknowledging that this could change. They and we have been very happy with our individual school, including the approach the staff have taken during the closure (to us) period. There has been no pressure or expectation to complete any work; they have provided suggestions of activities and offered to provide support and feedback should we wish to maintain some form of teacher-pupil relationship. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the experience with the opposite pros and cons in this period compared to before, and it has taught me a lot. In particular it has given me the confidence that should we change our minds on whether school is the best option for any of the kids in future, I can totally do this! 

As I suspected, Joel has really benefitted from some one to one time in reading and writing. I’ve always known that he’s got loads of info and ideas in his head, but he’s often reluctant to let on and he isn’t the most capable at doing so quickly enough in writing. At school this makes it look like he isn’t as capable as he is, though his teacher these past two years has been brilliant at recognising this, encouraging him and celebrating him as a person beyond the tick boxes she has to complete. He’s always been happy to go to school, enjoys lots of things there, and just seems to shrug off the more challenging things he faces. But obviously I have been able to spend more time with him and go with his interests and body clock. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – he does still have moments of defiance and frustration (often related to tiredness), and I know he pushes boundaries more with me than other adults so sometimes this impacts his learning. However, overall I am seeing him grow, which is rewarding for both of us. 

Reading one of his favourite Oxford Owl books (free ebooks at the moment)

I also wondered whether Andrew would use the opportunity to delve deeper in to areas he’s interested in and explore new interests. He always had his head in non fiction books – before school, after school, bedtime, weekends, holidays etc. And he’d recently got in to baking on his own. Like I said, it’s not like the kids only learn in school anyway, there’s so much more to learning life skills than what is taught at school. He generally finds school work easy, though I think his teachers managed to challenge him enough in class as far as they could with 30 kids because he didn’t complain about boredom nor behave in a way that suggested he was bored – I think he liked to help others which kept him occupied. But he has used this extended time out of the classroom to do lots of independent learning in areas that really interest him – like chemistry and maths. He’s in year 4, yet his knowledge is often what I’d expect of a secondary school pupil; he’s even got the hang of some GCSE level maths. He has baked loads, had a go at learning Dutch and Latin on Duolingo, and has recently got in to cross stitch too. It’s been lovely to see him enjoying all these various learning opportunities. It’s a shame his residential trip got postponed until next year, because that’s one opportunity we can’t offer him at home. 

One thing that surprised me about all four kids being together all day every day is the amount of learning they do from each other – I’ve really enjoyed witnessing this. It’s definitely an advantage of a larger family, particularly good for me to realise as I never thought I’d have four kids. For example the boys like reading to the twins, Joel likes Andrew explaining maths to him, and the twins are picking up lots of new language and interest in topics that I don’t think they’d have done so quickly had the boys not been around so much these last couple of months. All of them are learning various things from all their siblings. 

Whilst we wouldn’t necessarily stick with the exact style of home education that we’ve had to launch ourselves into at short notice if we actively made the decision to do it, it has been an interesting experiment should we need to change course in future (particularly if we’re not successful with our application to have the twins start reception at age 5). I’ve figured out that the style that suits us best is somewhere in the middle of a continuum between unschooling and rigid curriculum – lots of freedom for the kids to learn what interests them at the times when they are most keen to, but also some guidance from me on maths, reading, and writing. Sometimes we do suggestions from school, it’s particularly handy if there’s a free resource for us because school has paid for it, and sometimes we don’t.

If you follow me on Instagram you may remember my post on the last day of school, with the Bournville Carillon playing at home time as everyone left not knowing when we could be together again. I’d been really struggling with school runs since about January, because the twins (one in particular) were having so many meltdowns about needing to leave home at certain times when I said so – I think they didn’t like their lack of control, understandably for two year olds. It was really getting me down. In that post I said I never wished a pandemic would be the thing that stopped this, and that is still true. However their behaviour has been so much more pleasant since then. Yes we’ve still had some meltdowns, but nowhere near as many, and usually over quite negotiable things rather than something I ultimately couldn’t change. I do not miss school runs in the slightest for this reason. 

In general all the kids have coped really well with the situation, considering it’s a change from life as they knew it. Of course we have had times when behaviour hasn’t been great, us parents included. But I have been surprised how the kids’ behaviour has, on the whole, been similar to, if anything a bit more positive than, previously. Especially Joel, who I thought would struggle the most with a change of routine, but he now doesn’t need the same after school unwind period as his frustration outlet happens more gradually at various intervals throughout the day. 

Over these past couple of months there have been ups and downs. Overall I wouldn’t say life is harder, neither is it easier, it’s just different. And who knows what life will be like in the coming months.

Our family cycling journey: can we go car free?

Andrew aged 9 and Joel aged 7 on the back of a Tern GSD

Meet Mike, our new bike. Named after the excerpt below from Dr Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. He’s a Tern GSD, a longtail cargo bike with electric pedal assist. As you can see we can fit at least two kids on the back, as well as various other cargo such as bags, shopping and kids’ bikes. We’ve been thinking about whether to buy one for a few months, and even once we’d made the decision there were a few hurdles in the way of actually getting one, but now he’s finally here! I thought I’d write a post about how we got to this point, and where we hope our family cycling journey will take us in the future.

I remember learning to ride a bike as a child; I don’t remember exactly what age, but I must have been at infant school. With my parents and brother, I did quite a lot of cycling for leisure – we always took bikes on camping holidays both in the UK and France. But cycling as a means of transport was never something I thought about…. until I got to know a boy who did it. I say a boy – he was 18, I was 19; he was a fresher and I was in my second year at the University of Nottingham. We met at church, somewhere I used to drive to because it was too far to walk from my house on the other side of campus, though it was only a short walk from his hall of residence. That boy turned out to be my future husband. 

Over the 4 years that we both lived in Nottingham, he cycled a lot, at a time when you didn’t see that many cyclists on the road. The hills were no issue since he was used to cycling in Plymouth, where he would also cycle miles to work and back for his holiday job. I mainly walked or got the bus, but did use my car at weekends and to travel back to my parents’ house in Coventry. Then Tom and I moved to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies, and for the first time we lived in a city where cycling was popular! His interest in sustainable transport really had chance to shine through there – he joined the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and shared his views on local transport politics.

It was there too that I got in to cycling as a means of transport. I bought a fairly cheap ladies hybrid and used it daily for cycling to my classes and then later my offices for 3 and a half years, basically until I had severe pregnancy sickness with Andrew. I didn’t feel able to cycle in pregnancy, at first due to the sickness and then after a break I didn’t feel confident to start again with a bump on board, though heavily pregnant women cycling through Cambridge were a common sight. In fact all sorts of weird and wonderful things travelling through Cambridge on bikes/trikes were common sights, it was amazing! In the first year of Andrew’s life I did a lot of walking with the buggy – that’s how we got around, with the occasional bus trip, and the car was mostly used to get out of Cambridge. I didn’t feel the need to cycle with him, and by the time he was old enough for a child seat on the back of my bike, I was pregnant again with Joel – cue even more severe sickness. After he was born we got around town as before, this time with a sling plus single buggy combo. 

During the summer when Joel was about 9/10 months old, I started to think that a cargo bike which could fit both boys in, as I had seen so many people ride in Cambridge, would help us get around faster. The boys’ combined weight was starting to get more intense to push and carry for the miles of walking we did, and I couldn’t expect them to walk those distances for a while yet. I test rode a couple of different options – a Bakfiets bike and a Winther Kangaroo trike. There weren’t that many makes and models available, even in the cycling city of Cambridge, at that time 6 and a half years ago. So we made the decision that we’d buy the trike as I preferred that one. However, before we’d moved our money around to order it (I couldn’t find any second hand at the time), Tom got an interview in Birmingham, and he got the job. We’d been planning on moving back to the Midlands at some point for various reasons, but it all happened quite quickly in the end. Trike purchasing was put on hold until further notice. We lived with my parents in Coventry for 7 months (and Tom commuted by train), to allow us to sell our flat in Cambridge and buy a house here in Birmingham without a chain. 

About a year after my first thoughts on getting a cargo bike, we were settled in our new house in Birmingham – on a hill. Most of our daily routes turned out to be up and down hills, which just hadn’t been the case in flat Cambridge. Electric assist cargo bikes weren’t really a thing then; I didn’t come across them in my researching, and the technology was more expensive then anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have been financially feasible after the house move. So we gave up on the idea of a cargo bike. I still walked most places with the boys, or got public transport in to town. Then a year later Andrew started school, so we did school runs on foot and I only had Joel with me for groups and activities in the daytime. Tom of course commuted by bike, or sometimes walked.

We did ride to the park all together though for leisure at weekends. Andrew had learned to ride a pedal bike aged 3 whilst we were living in Coventry – he started on a balance bike aged 2 in Cambridge, where it was common to see them, and quickly took to a pedal bike because he’d mastered the balance already. I had a kids seat on the back of my bike for Joel, as cycling myself was the only way I could keep up properly with Andrew on his bike, I’m not a good jogger! I didn’t get on with the seat that well – it made the handling of my bike trickier, so I didn’t feel confident anywhere other than short rides on paths to the park. But Joel also picked up balance biking aged 2 and then pedal biking aged 3, so it wasn’t too long until they were both keen to ride.

Andrew’s (aged 2) balance bike parked up in the bike shed at our flat in Cambridge – where cycling was normal and loads of people had bikes.

And then I was pregnant again. Sadly this pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but before this happened we began researching cars because we knew ours wouldn’t fit three car seats across the back seat. We questioned whether we needed to buy one, because we didn’t use it much, mainly for days out of town and long distance trips to see family, or whether instead we could go car free, using public transport and occasionally hiring cars including the then new CoWheels hourly hire/car share company. Tom did some maths to work out rough costs of owning a car versus not owning a car, based on our needs at the time, and there wasn’t a lot in it if we could find the right car for us. Since we were only going to buy second hand, we needed to wait until something we liked and in budget came up for sale near enough to us anyway. Not long before I was pregnant with the twins one did come up, which was an “eco” model meaning tax is quite cheap, fuel economy quite good etc., so it swung the costs in favour of buying a car and we went for it.

I’m so glad we did! Our family unexpectedly went from 4 to 6, so an extra person to include in costs and an extra back seat needed. Thankfully we’d bought a 7-seater, but CoWheels don’t have one of these near us. When the twins were babies I certainly appreciated the times I did use the car, even if not loads; it did give me more freedom than without it. It was more about timings than anything else – when I had two school runs, groups at specific times, constant feeding of two babies, the twins’ differing nap patterns etc. to work around, the convenience of using the car to actually get out and do stuff sometimes was great, when walking or taking the bus would have taken too much time to fit everything in the day. Plus in the holidays when I had the four kids with me all day it was very useful. I’ll get back to bikes in a minute, but this was just to show that we’d seriously thought about going car free before, but it wasn’t quite right for us then.

So bikes…. in amongst the craziness of having baby twins in the family, the older boys still enjoyed riding bikes to the park every now and then. Tom would jog after them as I walked far behind with the twins in a wrap, or we’d take one twin each and the boys were under strict instructions to not go too far ahead. Neither option was great for all of us, and once the twins were over a year old we decided that we really needed to get us all on bikes to properly enjoy this family time together. At first I assumed we’d just get another child seat to go on Tom’s bike, but then I remembered double bike trailers were a thing, and this meant that one of us could more easily concentrate on helping Joel who, although physically could ride perfectly well, still struggled with thinking ahead and reacting to obstacles etc. So we got a trailer for Christmas just over a year ago. It’s been brilliant!

One of our first family bike rides with all 6 of us on bikes/trailer

We were able to get out most weekends as a family to one or two local parks that are reachable on paths all the way. The twins loved it in the trailer, and the boys really enjoyed being able to ride at a decent pace. Over the months their stamina and confidence grew, and Joel in particular came on a lot in terms of the skill of reacting to the world around him when cycling. By the summer holidays I felt able to take all four kids on my own to the most local park on bikes. This park is right next to school, so after the holidays I decided that I would try some school runs on bike. The boys thought this was absolutely amazing! They really enjoy having a purpose to a cycle ride, to get somewhere specific rather than just riding for leisure to the same old parks. We then found that we all had the confidence to go further as a family. So we looked up some routes from home using mainly paths, and found we could actually do some useful journeys – particularly to the opticians which has now become a running family joke because Joel manages to break his glasses so often *sigh* . 

I also tried cycling to a couple of our weekly toddler groups (we go to one every day except Wednesdays when my parents look after the twins whilst I work). These two I used the car for due to time constraints with school runs, post office runs, naps (or later not!) etc. One route was fine, if a bit of a struggle up the hill on the way home, but the other I couldn’t manage to tow the trailer on multiple hills. When we first got the trailer it was just about doable to tow it up the hill of our road coming back from the park, but over time this too started to get harder as the twins got heavier. And my bike has by now seen much better days – the gears have a mind of their own, sometimes they change when I click the shifter, sometimes they don’t, they keep me guessing! But Tom also agreed that even with his decent bike that’s less than a year old, it was getting harder to tow the trailer uphill.

My old hybrid bike plus trailer

I’m not sure exactly what first made me think of googling electric bikes, quite possibly it was a well targeted ad on social media since I’d mentioned cycling a few times in my posts. But soon my eyes were opened to a huge range of bikes out there that I didn’t know anything about. In my browsing of webshops, blogs etc. I also came across the various kinds of cargo bike that are now available in the UK, many with electric assist motors, and so many more than there were over 6 years previously when we’d first thought about getting one in Cambridge. It was also around this time that a friend (in Cambridge) added me to the Family Cycling UK Facebook group, which is such a great resource, and I learned even more from there about the vast number of options we had for transporting toddler twins, even with our hills. 

Once I’d done a lot of browsing myself, I chatted to Tom about the possibilities. I don’t think he could quite believe that I’d become so interested in researching bikes! He did some googling himself, because although he knows a fair amount about bikes, he knew very little about electric motors. We decided it would be a good idea to try to find somewhere local where we could go to talk to a human about electric bikes. At that point we still weren’t sure whether we were after a standard electric bike to tow the trailer, or an electric cargo bike. I found some online recommendations for Trikes and Bikes in Sutton Coldfield, as a bike shop who knew their stuff on electrics. The grandparents kindly volunteered to look after the kids one Saturday afternoon in November so we could get the (direct) train over there. It was well worth the trip, and we came back knowing much more clearly what we were looking at in terms of motors. All we needed to mull over more was the type of ebike that best suited our needs now and in future. Of the various cargo bike styles, I was leaning most towards a longtail rather than a box bike/trike, because a downside of the trailer was how wide it makes the bike to ride, and on some routes we do this makes it tricky. There seemed to be 3 brands/models that fitted our requirements- the Tern GSD, the Bicicapace Justlong, and the Yuba Spicy Curry.

Then Tom broke his arm, and for 6 weeks we did no cycling as a whole family, although I continued to do it a couple of days a week for school runs and our Thursday group. A new bike was put on the back burner somewhat, until Christmas. 

A family friend helps out on a school cycle bus scheme near where my parents live, and she was talking to my mum about another twin mum who does it on a longtail electric cargo bike – the Tern GSD. When she offered that we could test ride it, I jumped at the chance! So we arranged a date in late December when we were staying with my parents. It was an amazing experience! I’ve never ridden an ebike before, but I didn’t find it hard to pick up. Basically it felt like someone else was pedalling with me, so when I gave the amount of power in a pedal push that I normally would, the bike went much further than I expected. On the flat I didn’t really need the motor, and Tom even turned it off (I didn’t dare fiddle with the screen), but on our hills I could just imagine how perfect this extra power would be. The kids all enjoyed sitting on the back, and there’s plenty of room for two of various sizes. Unlike most longtails, the Tern GSD isn’t actually any longer than a standard bike, they’ve just made the wheels smaller and the geometry of the frame different to give the “long tail”. Crucially the small wheels make the centre of gravity lower than a standard bike, and riding with even a nearly 9 year old on it felt so much more stable and easier to handle than it had ever been with a toddler on the back of my old bike.

Test riding the Tern GSD

 So we were sold on the idea of an electric longtail cargo bike. It’s a more expensive option than a regular ebike, but we feel this is an investment into our future transport use, because we think this gives us a really good chance of being in the position to not buy another car when ours gives up, whereas a regular ebike would be more about the here and now of towing a trailer with toddler twins, who will outgrow it in the next couple of years. Even a longtail ebike costs a heck of a lot less than an electric car, which is the only type of car that we’d want to consider now that a couple of 7-seater models exist. We can use the bike with all the kids – not at the same time obviously, but it would be handy to take an older boy or two further than they can reasonably cycle or if the logistics of taking their own bike would be tricky. We can use it for large shopping trips – currently Tom gets most of our food shopping little and often every day on his way home from work on his bike, but this gives us more flexibility. We’d still need to get the train to visit family, and probably hire a car for some days out, but if it’s just me and the kids we’d only need a 5-seater for that.

We just needed to decide which of the three longtails we’d go for, weighing up the various pros and cons of each. The second Sunday afternoon of January, whilst we were watching the kids have fun riding around a deserted car park, we concluded that the Tern GSD was the one. That’s mainly because we knew Trikes and Bikes was a Tern dealer, so we would have a local point of contact should we need to deal with any warranty claims. We’d already test ridden it, whereas with the other two we’d need a trip to London or Cambridge to try them out. We would have considered buying second hand, however these bikes very rarely come up and even if they do we’d need to travel a fair distance to collect. 

Tom set about mobilising all our savings – eek, that’s the scary part, this is a considerable leap of faith for us financially! He emailed the dealer to ask for a quote including the accessories that we needed to seat kids on it. A quick reply from them told us the price, but also that there wouldn’t be any new stock of the bikes arriving in the UK for them to order for us until June! Argh! Having made the decision, we were keen to get one sooner than that. I tried another dealer near where we’d test ridden, but they couldn’t help either, because they too didn’t keep any in stock. We could buy one online from various larger dealers across the country who do keep them in stock, but we would need to get it back to them to make any warranty claims, or get free parts posted to us and pay a local bike shop to fix it. I even emailed Tern, who passed my details on to the UK representative and in turn the distribution team, to whom I asked the question would it be possible for them to organise getting a GSD sitting in stock elsewhere in the country to Trikes and Bikes so we could buy it from them. The answer was no.

So we looked back to the other options, particularly the Bicicapace Justlong because it was significantly cheaper. Although we’d need to travel to test ride it, pay for delivery, and have a non-local point of contact for potential warranty claims, if it was cheaper in the first place then we were more prepared to do these things for this rather than the GSD. It was incredibly frustrating that it seemed impossible to buy a longtail cargo ebike in the West Midlands at that point in time. 

Just as we were mulling over our next move, to go and test ride the Justlong, we had a phone call from Trikes and Bikes. They made us a fabulous offer, which they didn’t have to – if we bought a stock GSD from elsewhere, they would still act as a local point of contact for any potential warranty claims. Although it’s a risk for them as a business, they believe it’s one worth taking, for the bigger picture of getting one of these fantastic bikes here in Birmingham, to promote the Tern brand, and to get a family out there using sustainable transport. I’m certain we will be turning heads with the bike, starting conversations and advocating for family cycling as a means of local transport. And anyway, they’re confident it’s a quality product and they probably won’t need to be involved. We were delighted to accept this offer, and bought a GSD online straight away. It was delivered a few days later to their unit in Sutton Coldfield. 

One thing we could sort out through Trikes and Bikes though is the set of accessories – a beach seat, foot plates and hand bars for the back, and a front rack. These were ordered for us as soon as the bike arrived, whilst we eagerly awaited news. Unfortunately these also had an unforeseen supply issue – I’m trusting that Tern have a better reputation for actual bikes compared to their supply and distribution system in this country. So we waited another 3 weeks for these to arrive and be fitted. But finally we got our hands on our very own longtail cargo ebike, with huge thanks to a brilliant local bike shop who couldn’t have been more helpful and on our wavelength. Tom went to pick it up on the train, though ended up cycling it half way back home along the canal towpath from town, because trains out of New Street along the line back home were suddenly all suspended – it got a fun maiden voyage and he was very impressed.

A first quick go on the new bike for the twins. We are aware that you shouldn’t leave them unattended when the bike is on the kickstand – my husband was just out of shot in front of the other bike and watching that they were sat still whilst I took the photo. I’m also going to make some skirt guards for the back wheel before they ride again.

So now we’re looking forward to using our lovely new bike. We will still keep the car for now, but ultimately we would love the bike (and some trains/buses/occasional hire cars) to replace it. At the moment we are so fed up of the general attitude around here that cars rule the roads. Every day I witness terrible, dangerous and illegal parking around school, which basically boils down to people’s lifestyles being so rushed and down to the wire that they can’t find the time to park just a 5 minute walk away in designated car parks that local organisations have allowed school to use. 5 minutes, that’s all. I have 4 kids, I get it, life is busy, but it’s 5 minutes. I very rarely sit in rush hour traffic jams but on the rare occasion I do, it really depresses me that there are just so many cars in this city. We want out! We want to be part of a change, a shift in attitude, we want to see the car brought down from its pedestal as THE way to get around. And we want our kids to grow up knowing that there are alternatives, which are far better for environment and health. Let’s do this!

Birthday cakes – 2019

Andrew’s 8th birthday

He wanted a science themed cake this year, and his favourite science at the moment is Chemistry.

Samuel and Naomi’s 2nd birthday

They love listening to the the Muppets song “Muh Nah Muh Nah” on repeat at the moment, even as a way to fall asleep! I absolutely had to make these cakes, and like last year, it’s handy to make two cakes of a pair like this in terms of the amount of work that goes into making two separate cakes.

Joel’s 7th birthday

In the summer Joel bought an Angry Birds album from a National Trust second hand bookshop. In it there were idea for an Angry Birds themed birthday party, which he decided he really wanted to have this year. So of course that was the theme of the cake.

Starting reception at compulsory school age: our journey begins

It’s that time of year again, when my social media feeds over the last few weeks have been full of back to school photos, as well as a fair number of not back to school photos from the home educating families that I know. I’ve been asked a few times if the twins are starting at nursery soon. They’ll be going to a lovely little church hall playgroup next September, when they’re eligible for the 15 hours a week free childcare from the government. We don’t need childcare before that as my paid work fits around what time I get when looking after them, which is mainly a few hours at weekends and most Wednesdays when Tom or my parents are around. But when we get it for free, I’ll use that time to do more paid work (sewing) and voluntary work (slings and breastfeeding support).

At that point the twins will be 3 years 2 months old. We would like them to go to the playgroup for two years, until they go to school at 5 years 2 months old. I know lots of children in England start school when they’re 4 years old, including our eldest two who were 4 years 7 months and 4 years 10 months, but I’d like to explain in this blog post why I think starting school at 4 years 2 months old is not in the twins’ best interests and how we can change this.

In a nutshell, I think we start formal schooling too young in this country. Most of the rest of Europe don’t start school until 6 or 7 years old; until this age children learn though play in nursery/kindergarten type settings or at home. This is because children aren’t, on average, developmentally ready for formal learning until this age. Notice I did say “on average”, which means some are ready (much) sooner, some (much) later; that’s the nature of a normal distribution. We seem to be an anomaly here in England. I became interested in this when I heard about the Too Much Too Soon campaign having worked in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge (in a different department). Here you can find a summary of the evidence they found for not starting formal learning at age 4: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence

So why did our older boys start reception class aged 4? Well first there was Andrew, the child who was clearly way above average in terms of his development in all areas including emotional, social and academic. He went to a lovely play-based daycare nursery with his free 15 hours for the year before school. It was there where they picked up on his exceptional abilities – for example, he could tell the time aged 3, just because he’d been curious and learned it from real life with us before nursery, and would tell the staff when they were due to go on breaks! I never had any doubt that he would thrive at school, and he always has. 

And then there was Joel, who thankfully has an October birthday, meaning he is one of the oldest in his class. Although I had more reservations about whether Joel would suit school, because he wasn’t as emotionally, socially or academically as developed as Andrew had been, at least he wasn’t long off 5 when he started reception. Furthermore, by the time we needed to consider whether to send him to school, we’d experienced over a year of the fantastic learning environment at Bournville Infant School (now Bournville Village Primary School after the infants and juniors merged). I was very impressed with how playful the reception class was, with most of the day spent outdoors, very little formal structure, hardly any tables in classrooms as they didn’t expect them to sit at them to learn etc. Even the transition to year 1 was gentle, with still a lot of play-based learning and no pressure of anything like homework. The Cadburys founded the school, and their ethos of letting kids be kids (rather than sending them out to work in those days) is still apparent today. We felt that considering the constraints of the education system that the school is in, formal learning wasn’t really starting until later in year 1, by which point Joel would be 6 and a half. So we tried it, and actually he’s thrived at school so far too, particularly the social aspect of it. He’s just started year 2 aged nearly 7. I don’t think he would have coped with this had he been any younger than he is. If he’d have been born just a couple of months earlier, there is no way he would have coped, let alone thrived, in the school year above.

So why will the twins not start reception aged 4? Essentially it comes down to the fact that their birthday is in June. The chances of them both being exceptionally above average in all areas of development at just turned 4 are pretty slim, and I wouldn’t want one to start school without the other as I think that could cause issues between them later on. Even at a school which doesn’t press ahead with formal learning very quickly, being summer born means they would be starting it younger than age 6, and our experience with Joel suggests this could all go horribly wrong for them. My own experience of being summer born, so starting school at just turned 4, also comes in to this. I never struggled academically – I left school with straight As at GCSE and A-Level, and went on to achieve a first class bachelors degree, a masters degree and a PhD. But emotionally I don’t think I coped well, and my mental health was poor when I left school. However, it’s precisely because the twins are summer born that we now have the chance to do things differently.

The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17 states that “the parents of a summer born* child may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their fifth birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1.” (* Summer born is defined as born between 1st April and 31st August.) And actually compulsory school age (CSA) in this country is 5 years old anyway. Even though in practice most children start reception aged 4, this is not compulsory, and of course parents have the legal right to home educate once CSA is reached. Prior to the current admissions code, parents didn’t have the right to request a CSA reception start, they just had the right to skip reception and start their child at CSA in year 1 – which we still have, but I never really understood why that helped at all. Starting reception in September at CSA isn’t a deferred or a delayed start (this means a start part way through reception year such as after Christmas or Easter), rather it is referred to as a deceleration or an admission out of the normal age cohort.

So this all sounds straightforward to me, what’s the catch? Well the hard part comes (or may come) in getting our preferred school(s) to agree to our request for a CSA reception start. The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17A states that “[a]dmission authorities must make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned. This will include taking account of the parent’s views; information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional; whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group; and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely. They must also take into account the views of the head teacher of the school concerned. When informing a parent of their decision on the year group the child should be admitted to, the admission authority must set out clearly the reasons for their decision.” It is our right to wait until CSA (5 years), but ultimately the admission authority decides whether the child goes in to reception or year 1 at that point, having considered the parents’ request for a reception start, and the authority must detail why they think reception or year 1 is in the child’s best interests.

The admission authority varies for each school. We have 4 primary schools about half a mile from our house in different directions: one is an academy, so the authority is the academy trust; two are voluntary aided schools, so the authority is the governing body; one is a community school, so the authority is Birmingham City Council. Basically it will depend on who out of all these people agrees with us that a CSA reception start is in the twins’ best interests and is therefore happy to grant our request on the sole basis of birth date, since we have no other factors such as special educational needs or prematurity involved. We do have sibling priority at Bournville Village Primary School, but if they are not willing to grant our request, we are not averse to trying the other three schools, particularly because Andrew will start secondary school when the twins start reception at CSA. If none of these schools agrees with us, we will probably home educate them for a while until we are happy that they are ready for formal schooling. But that’s a bridge to cross once we’ve gone down the route of requesting a CSA reception start first. 

For me it’s not just about them being ready for reception at just turned 4, because actually I think they’d probably cope if not thrive (the latter being the thing to aim for) in BVPS reception class. It’s about them being ready for the transition to year 1 at just turned 5, and the transition to year 3 at just turned 7, and the transition to year 7 at just turned 11, and doing GCSEs aged 15 and A-levels aged 17 etc. It’s about their whole school life ahead of them. I personally think there’s far more risk involved in the potential long term negative consequences of sending them to reception aged 4 years 2 months than there is risk in sending them to reception aged 5 years 2 months. I can only see benefits of waiting that year. So they will finish school aged just turned 19? That doesn’t seem to have caused any of my German friends harm. What’s a year in the scale of a lifetime? 

This blog post is the first chapter in documenting our journey of the twins starting school. It may be that all goes smoothly and there isn’t much to write home about, but we may have challenges. I want to document it to raise awareness of the rights we have as parents in terms of our children’s education, but rights which aren’t very well known or talked about. I’ve already found lots of support in the Flexible School Admissions for Summerborns Facebook group, which I would recommend joining if you’d like to find out more from parents who have been successful in or are applying for a CSA reception start. Watch this space for more updates in future.

Birthday cakes – 2018

Andrew’s 7th birthday

He had a swimming party this year.

Samuel and Naomi’s 1st birthday

Since we used to call them Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the womb, a term of endearment named after the little creatures in The Cat in The Hat by Dr Seuss, I thought this was appropriate for their first birthday. I want to always make one cake each for them, so doing something like this where there’s two in a pair is handy.

Joel’s 6th birthday

He had a soft play party at Tumble Jungle this year.