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Guest blog: Primary school admissions - time for a shake-up?

(40 Posts)
JessMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 22-Apr-13 16:39:06

Last week, many parents in London found that their child hadn't been offered their first choice of primary school - and others, that their child had been offered no place at all. In today's guest blog Prof. Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research explores what went wrong - and says it could be time for a shake-up of the admissions procedure.

What do you think - have you been affected by the shortage of places? Is it time to move away from 'parental choice', perhaps towards a lottery system? Let us know on the thread - and if you blog on this issue, don't forget to post your URL.

"Way back, before the Thatcher years, getting into a primary school was so simple. Almost everyone was happy to send their sons and daughters to the local school. There were few perceived differences between schools and nobody worried about them.

Now for a conscientious parent it can be a major undertaking. Researching numerous schools. Drawing up a list of preferences. Trying to increase the chance of getting into the first choice by moving nearer, regular church attendance or making a special case. Even then the offer may be for a school far away that was never considered.

In London this year 19 per cent of parents did not get their first choice and 5 per cent did not get any of the up to six preferences they listed. For them it will be a matter of agonising over whether or not to appeal, with the prospect looming of an anxious summer to see if they have made it up the waiting list.

What happened? Parental 'choice' is what happened. It was introduced by the Thatcher government in an attempt to drive up the quality of education by giving parents more say. Money followed pupils so that a school's funding depended on the number of pupils that it attracted. In order to get information to parents, school results and inspection reports were published.

What followed is what we have today. Word gets around that School A is very good and School B is a bit rough. Not surprisingly, every parent who cares tries to get their child into School A. There are many more applications than places so some parents end up being offered a place in School B, which is likely to have more than its fair share of children whose parents could not be bothered. The lucky parents whose child got into School A were selected by an arcane set of rules revolving around distance from school, whether there were brothers and sisters at the school, religious faith, social needs and medical needs.

That is the annual round of primary school admissions. But overlaying it and making things especially difficult at present is the sharp increase in the birth-rate. It has gone up by 22 per cent in England in the past decade, with rises of 50 per cent or more in some parts. The number of babies born to women in their early thirties is the highest on record.

The demand for school places seems to have caught the government by surprise, even though the birth-rate gives five years warning of the likely requirement. The unpredictable element seems to been new arrivals to the country. Foreign-born mothers now account for about a quarter of births. Immigrant families also have a greater tendency to move around, needing to join a school during the year.

Increased demand has meant adjustments to the system. In some cases, this will have benefitted parents because the number of places in popular school schools has been increased so that there is a greater likelihood of getting the first choice. But when your son or daughter gets there they may find themselves in a crowded or temporary classroom. The classes may be larger so that the teacher has less time for each child, or perhaps in order to keep class sizes down teaching assistants assume a greater role. The very quality that drew you to the school may be under strain.

There is no going back on parental choice, even if is only the power to express a preference. The genie is out of the bottle. It is very popular especially with those parents who know how to get their child into the school they want. They would be very reluctant indeed to hand back the control they have to some remote authority. No government would risk losing their votes.

But plainly a system running on parental preferences is not working as well as it should. It causes a lot of anguish among parents and wide differences have grown up between schools. There has to be a better way. It is not enough to leave school places to the market. Paradoxically, freedom to choose a school with a reasonable hope of success means there has to be more central planning and regulation.

The planning must ensure that there are enough school places within each locality, with sufficient slack to allow flexibility. The regulation must ensure that there is the opportunity of a primary school place close to home for every eligible child. This could be achieved, in part, by the government acting to re-establish catchment areas. Some schools would still attract more applicants than they had room for. Allocating the available places would be difficult. But there would seem to be two options. One would be to re-draft the admissions code so that it was less gameable, and came to be accepted as fair. The other - more radical solution - would be to draw lots."

Professor Alan Smithers is Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. For more information, visit www.alansmithers.com

FMacB Fri 28-Jun-13 20:39:30

The SEELB publishes guidelines for admissions criteria but it's up to each school's board of governors to set the admissions criteria. Unfortunately many schools' criteria are unfair and don't have catchment as a criteria. It is ridiculous but it's happening. The catchment area criteria was abolished here a long time ago and Open Enrolment was introduced, but it was the catchment criteria which made the system fair. Please do add your signature to the petition. We want to make things fair for all families.

https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/j-o-dowd-education-minister-north-down-mlas-councillors-change-primary-schools-admissions-criteria

gintastic Fri 28-Jun-13 20:32:23

Different LEA's must have different policies then, I assumed they were national? Loads of the suggestions above are already in place here in Oxfordshire. We have distance done on shortest walking distance, and in-catchment children have priority over our of catchment siblings. The priority list is as follows

1/ SEN & looked after children
2/ catchment with a sibling at the school (although not yr6 as they will have left before child starts
3/ all other catchment children
4/ out of catchment with a sibling
5/ all other

Each group differentiates by walking distance.

If there are areas where the sibling link takes total priority, that is just a bit odd?

FMacB Fri 28-Jun-13 20:21:38

Hi, we live in a village, our son (3 years old) was born there and has lived there all his life yet he was denied admission to both the village nursery and primary school because he does not meet their criteria - he is not the eldest child in the family. He has an older sister (13) who is at a different stage in her education and obviously at a different school. The school does not have proximity from child's home to school as a criteria. Therefore, children who live in different towns have attained P1 places there and our son will have to attend school in a different town, which will affect his socialization of not having friends in area etc. I feel strongly about this and have created a petition for primary schools to have their main admissions criteria as proximity from child's home to school.
If you agree, I would appreciate your signature. Just click on the link below and forward to family and friends. Many thanks.

https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/j-o-dowd-education-minister-north-down-mlas-councillors-change-primary-schools-admissions-criteria

NotAnotherPackedLunch Sat 27-Apr-13 10:20:00

Another problem with distance priority is that schools are not equally spaced throughout the community.
This results in some households being nearer and therefore having priority over others to 4 or 5 schools. If they were to change it to households only having distance priority for the one school that they are closest to then households in black holes would get a fairer shot at a place that is within reach.

As for out of catchment siblings, some eldest siblings end up at schools that are a long way from their home as there are no places nearer. Is it fair that these families get penalised a second time by not getting sibling priority as they don't live in catchment?

helenlouise7 Sat 27-Apr-13 10:03:43

Most parents just want to send their child to the local school, but they want that school to be a good one. And of course, 'good' doesn't just mean SATs results, although we all want our kids to be able to read, write and add up aged 11, it also means warm and friendly, somewhere that makes learning fun and fosters positive relationships between the pupils, and the pupils and staff. Rather than creating more competition, academies etc the focus should be on achieving those basics for EVERY school.
helenlchandler.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/school-admissions-or-my-nervous-breakdown/

LizFurze Tue 23-Apr-13 18:26:10

I am someone who has been/will be biarrly affeced by school addmisions in my local area.

We were awarded a place for our daughter at our catchment school, and absolutly delighted about it as it is an 'outstanding' ofsed school, and all of her friends from preschool and the area's children also go there.

We lived above the pub where I worked at the time which was great as we were able to balance work and family life well and hoped to be able to afford to buy a house in the long term this way.
Unfortunatly my employer knowing the bind we were in over our children and the school deceided to change the terms of my employment meaning I was no longer actually being paid for my work, I was simply getting a shabby and unprivate flat above my work (meaning I basicaly worked all the time) in retun for my efforts.

I then looked at 9 differnt rental houses that we could afford at such short notice within the school catchment, and put in referencing form for several of them, only to be told that the landlord was unhappy that we owned a dog or that both our children were under 5 etc etc.
I became distraught at the situation and had also visted my doctor over the extreem stres it caused.

In the end my husband and I were forced to rent a house miles outside of catchment just to have somewhere to live.

We spoke with addmissions who advised us our daughter would not get into the viliage school 5 miles away and that we would do as well to keep her at the school she was given a place.

This being the case we told our daughter about her place and bought the uniform.

Over the summer holidays we were then subjected to nothingless than a hate campaign by certain mum and a ful investigation by addmissions (who I myself had contacted) to prove we ever lived at the pub, which everone had seen my leave at 8.50 every morning for 6 months and told our daughters place was on hold untill we could.

We provided suffienct proof that we had lived at the address and the case was dropped.

From that point onwards I have been subjeted to some kind of petty hate campaign by the mothers of certain sibling children who missed out on spaces that year.
This has made me sad/angry anxious and stressed for both myself and m daughter for the last 9 months.

I have a son due for 2014 intake and dont expect him o get a place at either his sisters or our catchment school due to our personal circumstances, so am even more fraught over the issue.

I have had to experience public character deformation both 'behind my back' and on the internet for this issue by the current systems loosers
so complely agree that something needs to change!

Dickwhittington Tue 23-Apr-13 14:54:35

Mrs havnt read your campaign but what about people who want to separate their children (OK not a huge group I expect but the system can't cope with that)

Dickwhittington Tue 23-Apr-13 14:53:20

Horrible system don't know what the answer is!
Whatever decision is made is unfair on someone whether it is poor people, unemployed, renters, sibling/catchment policies it all sucks and as for the appeal system just don't get me started the day is not long enough.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the only fair system is a lottery, with buses if you want to make it really fair or restricting options to schools within a certain distance if primary.

But then there are different needs in urban and rural areas so I'm not as convinced that rural need a lottery.

Then it needs to be the same nationwide (can't even think about peeps on Wales/England/ Scotland boarder) my cousin lives in a part of the states that buses, he tells me the schools are very meh so they are moving to the next door county which does something else.

I will however add that many moons ago we had 3 kids in 3 different places worked in another and lived in a 5th (not out of choice) The whole set up nearly finished me off.

mrscostello Tue 23-Apr-13 14:27:06

This problem we are only too aware of. Whilst catchment, Ofsted and parental choice is in play, families of primary school children are at risk of being separated. We are hearing about many who are in that awful predicament. Action needs to be taken by government NOW. This problem isn't a curve ball. It's been on the cards for almost a decade!
See our FB campaign page for further info - search for 'Siblings at the Same School'.
https://www.facebook.com/LeamingtonSiblingsAtTheSameSchoolActionGroup?ref=hl

NightLark Tue 23-Apr-13 09:38:06

The problem surely is with inadequate schools, compounded by the way in which choice automatically increases polarisation.

You can't have a 'choice' system in which everyone gets what they want, unless there is massive over-capacity.

This must be about wanting what you get (a good school, near to home), not getting what you want in a system where schools market themselves.

I agree with the poster earlier who said the same goes for hospitals. It's not a market where you have a short-lived bad experience, change your purchasing strategy and move on, forcing poor providers to improve by your actions.

Blu Tue 23-Apr-13 08:25:06

The only problem with sibling admissions is the way it is exploited by families who take a short rental to get the first child in and then move back to their big house beyond catchment with places secure for another two kids. Meanwhile the flat they rented is passed on to another family who do exactly the same.

I don't think families who have to move for genuine reasons should be disadvantaged because of the behaviour of cheaters.

The press LOVE this 'London schools, what a disaster' story, and the ES featured a story last week about a woman in E Dulwich all shock horror that she had not been offered any of her unrealistic choices and had been given her local school which had been failing. And guess what? It is now a really good school, great ofsted, great results, happy place for kids. It just doesn't have the competitive status at dinner parties.

The focus should be on real problems: black holes and places where the only real choices are inadequate schools.

NewFerry Tue 23-Apr-13 07:43:26

I appreciate it must be extremely frustrating to find yourself in some of the situations outlined above, I think it is a problem more to do with cities, specially large cities.
In wiltshire 91% of pupils got their first choice, and 5% their second choice. 98% got one of their choices.

Perhaps the sibling priority should only be retained if you continue to live at the same address as when your most recent child was admitted? Otherwise you rejoin the main pot and you will get a place if you continue to meet all the admissions criteria including distance.

JaquelineHyde Mon 22-Apr-13 22:43:00

Come September I shall have 3 children (year 2, 3 and 4) in 3 seperate schools as the sibling link does not count.

DH is a stay at home Dad and so does all school runs, he doesn't drive. He would have to leave home at 7:30am placing dc1 in early morning club at the infant school down the road, he would then have to take 2 buses to drop dc2 off at primary school just in time for the start of school. He would then have to get a further 2 buses to drop dc3 off at their junior school at least an hour late. He would then have to get 2 buses home with the 5 month old (I'm currently 4 days over due so the baby will be 5 months in september)

So he would be out from 7:30am-11am ish, then would start all over again for the pick up!

The result is at least one of my children possibly two of them, as we can't afford morning or after school clubs, will have to be kept out of school until a place is found for them, unless our appeal is upheld.

The sibling link is very important and should be used, if not free school transport needs to be introduced or just bloody give children who live closest to schools the school places angry

allagory Mon 22-Apr-13 22:34:23

From your figures 81% of parents got their first choice. That actually sounds quite good to me.

Having said that I do think their should be a points system which takes into account both distance from school AND time living in catchment. Community schools are by definition there to serve the community and being near isn't the only measure of that.

I think the siblings rule should remain because it is impractical to take say, a 5 and a 6 year old to 2 different schools would be logistically very difficult, especially if you were (say) a single parent.

Wishiwasanheiress Mon 22-Apr-13 22:24:27

There is. what you state is precisely what my parents believed / hoped should occur until through appealing and following procedure (admittedly at that time) the council was forced to admit otherwise, that by not having a sister/brother they were in fact loading the system. The schools were in agreement that they were choosing siblings in priority for good results in exams/sports fields. One good at one thing invariably leads to another similarly talented in the same family. Onlies were viewed as not desirable therefore.

Look I see many reasons as to why siblings should stay together. I'm just advocating a system that works as favourably for one as the other. That's all. I'm not convinced it does through friends. It is an influence of mine in my family choices in my area. I still live there.

knitcorner Mon 22-Apr-13 22:20:46

phiney if every child in London went to their nearest school, they would be able to walk there. No need for school buses, no need for commuting of any kind for children under 11, no clogging up of public transport and no traffic congestion.

We live on top of each other, there are plenty of local schools, we just can't get in any of them!

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 22:12:17

But how near is 'near'?

A family could find themselves living in the same house they lived in when oldest child gained a place, and be too far away for youngest to get in by the time they apply.

What about the siblings of those in higher priority categories such as statemented children, children in care or those who obtained a place under the med/soc category?

Phineyj Mon 22-Apr-13 21:59:03

Why wouldn't school buses work in London? Not being stroppy, but genuinely curious as London is full of buses already, just not the supervised sort the Americans have. I can see it would be impractical in the countryside where people are much more spread out, but the pressure on schools is not so great there anyway.

weasle Mon 22-Apr-13 21:36:32

I agree with knitcorner, no choice but nearest school which is good enough. Same as for hospitals.

We live 400m from an outstanding school with a 60 intake. No chance of getting in as hoards of people rent for a year on the road of the school, get one child in then move away, drive to school and get siblings in. I walk past them all in their big cars every day as I walk past that school to go to one a mile away.

I definitely feel siblings should only get priority if you live near the school still to stamp out the cheating practice locally. Primary school kids should be able to walk to school for lots of reasons, not least their own long term health.

clam Mon 22-Apr-13 21:06:03

I can't see how you could make a charge that a sibling rule discriminates against 'onlies' stick. Because all those parents with more than one child had the same issue when their oldest child applied in the first instance, with no older sibling to help.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 21:04:08

Wishiwasanheiress, there is no discrimination against onlies- the eldest child of a sibling group is the 'only' in every family.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 21:00:08

I should add, the sibling rule is not applied in my borough if the child attends an out of catchment school.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 20:56:47

I agree with notfluffy- retaining the sibling rule is important.

However, I live in a borough which has just re-introduced catchment areas, and although frustratingly this put us out of catchment to our nearest school, it put us in the catchment of another which we had not considered due to distance. I think the system could have worked very well if the borough had gone with their original plan to use random allocation as a tie break criterion; however, it seemed to have bottled it at the last minute and used 'distance to nearest alternative school' instead, which effectively brings back the distance cut off.

Littlefish Mon 22-Apr-13 20:54:30

Notfluffy - but if you choose to send your child to a school out of catchment, then why should the siblings take priority over children who live in the local area and are part of the community.

notfluffy Mon 22-Apr-13 20:42:58

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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