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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 13-Jan-16 14:56:56

Guest post: "My son wasn't offered a primary school place"

Steph Douglas felt 'utterly useless' when her son didn't get a primary place - but she later discovered that it was staff and families, not location, that made a school

Steph Douglas

Sisterhood (And All That)

Posted on: Wed 13-Jan-16 14:56:56

(119 comments )

Lead photo

"I was confident in the system – I thought we didn't have anything to worry about."

No offer possible.

Unfortunately it is not possible to offer a place for your child at any of the schools you stated as a preference in your application.

The email came in at 7.45pm, after a day of texts from relieved friends who had got their school offer, and growing panic at the multiplying 'WE GOT IN' statuses on Facebook.

Rewind three months to this time two years ago and we had just submitted our primary school application form for our son Buster. We'd diligently visited and included six schools all within a mile of our house, and all with great reputations. While a lot of people seemed to be a bit panicky about not getting a place, I was confident in the system – and with so many good schools near us, and all our neighbours at our most local school, I thought we didn't have anything to worry about.

When we got the news, my husband Doug was working away. I phoned him immediately, shouting at him that he must have cocked up the forms. He hadn't. The main issue for our closest school was that of 60 places, 42 were taken up by siblings and a further six went to church places. That left 12 places, so the catchment was a tiny 399 metres.

There's thought to be quite a lot of mystery around how schools allocate places, but most of the time it's pretty straightforward: most councils have criteria for looked after children and those with special needs, then siblings are prioritised, church places allocated (if they have them) and then it's down to location. Despite this, it's easy to get caught up in the hysteria as people around you start attending church or temporarily move to an area to improve their chances of getting in to the best school.

As it turns out, Buster is having what is probably the best possible start to education that he could have. He has no idea that most primary schools aren't a Portakabin in a car park.


I was surprised at how emotional I felt about it. I resented the people now talking to their kids about big school, getting excited about uniforms and moving on with their lives. There were a couple of heartbreaking moments when Buster walked past our local school and said 'I'm going there mum'. I felt utterly useless.

So, we started our campaign for a school place. Alongside 22 families without places, we met and fought with the council, drafting documents supporting a bulge class in an existing school. The issue for us was that two new free schools were scheduled to open, neither of which we'd applied to because of their locations – and why should we, with so many great schools on our doorstep?

However the council wouldn't budge, because despite the fact that the provision wasn't 'ideal', it was there (albeit in the wrong location), and apart from our group of parents, it didn't feel like there was anyone else championing the cause. By July, it was clear we weren't going to get a place at any of the schools on our list, so we started talking to one of the free schools.

As it turns out, Buster is having what is probably the best possible start to education that he could have. He has no idea that most primary schools aren't a Portakabin in a car park. The staff are fantastic and the school, fully aware that the circumstances weren't ideal for most, have done everything they can to make everyone ok with the situation, getting families involved in transforming the concrete play area.

Instead of being one in a few hundred pupils, he's one in 13. They do things that wouldn't be feasible with more children: go on welly walks, make use of the local park, go to swimming lessons. He started to read and write in the first term and the class have really bonded. After the first few weeks settling in, he has regularly said to us 'I love my school'.

I've learned that ultimately the staff, children and their families are what make a school, but I understand that in the end we've been lucky – this wouldn't be the case for everyone. The system is wrong. For example, the sibling policy needs looking at; something isn't right if someone who has moved out of the area retains a school place for future siblings which means that people who actually live and work in that local community can't get in and have to travel to another community.

There is also huge contradiction with two areas of policy; the pressure to build housing versus an increasing demand to build schools. The two compete with each other for space and invariably schools lose out.

The biggest issue is that these fundamental concerns are fairly fleeting for most. Those of us who have borne the brunt of it end up making the best of a bad situation and moving on. So who is fighting to improve the system?

By Steph Douglas

Twitter: @stephiedoug

2boysnamedR Wed 13-Jan-16 15:11:08

I didn't get into any of my choices years ago with my first born. I picked only the nearest schools. I wasn't alone but only three other parents was interested in trying to get a bulge class.

I was offered a school four miles away. I put his name on the 25 nearest school because not only was the offered school four miles away, it had just been closed by Ofsted for the second time in ten years.

So now all my kids go to a school five miles away via sibling places. So I push out local families. But what's the answer? My kids need a place somewhere.

The system however it's changed will be unfair to some people.

Plus I can't be in two locations nine miles apart at pick up time which would be the most likely situation with out sibling places. One four miles away in the god awful one the LA offered and my first born in the one we got via waiting list four miles in the other direction

I am amazed that my neighbour has only put down the village school. Because " where else can he go?" The answer to that is "whatever school in the town that has just fallen foul of Ofsted. Even if it's four miles + away"

Sallyhasleftthebuilding Wed 13-Jan-16 15:55:22

But.... How many non resident kids are keeping your from attending the local school? That's the issue isn't it?

RueDeWakening Wed 13-Jan-16 15:55:54

My council says it needs to build 2 high schools by 2019 to accommodate the increase in primary places filled over the last few years. First to open in 2017.

They currently don't even have a site available to build on. My oldest child is likely to be starting high school in a portakabin in a car park. It stinks!

HeadDreamer Wed 13-Jan-16 16:05:07

I agree with you on the sibling criteria where people who moved out of catchment retains their positions on the list. That just screams out for people to rent and abuse the system.

Where I live, in Hampshire, the sibling priority is retained only for students who are still living in catchment. I think that is the way forward, and a better solution for local families. I don't understand why other councils don't follow this.

merrymouse Wed 13-Jan-16 16:08:01

I think much of the standard school admissions criteria was written decades ago when there wasn't such pressure on spaces.

Situations like this also show how illusory the concept of choice is.

2boysnamedR Wed 13-Jan-16 16:29:47

Where I live the catchment is so tight I'm not in any catchment most years. They won't expand the village schools as they won't to fill the Ofsted failed one.

So if gave up my sibling place I would still have no school for my kids as I'm not in catchment ( even though the school is 1km down my road)

StephieDoug Wed 13-Jan-16 16:52:42

That's exactly it!

mellicauli Wed 13-Jan-16 16:55:49

The siblings rule is a sensible one for primary school. How can a parent pick up 3 different children at 3 different schools all at 3.15?

Sorry that you have had this experience but you should be criticising the authorities who have failed to make adequate provisions for school places, not blaming people who have a perfectly legitimate claim to attend near by schools.

(Never needed to use the siblings rule myself and never will, by the way).

2boysnamedR Wed 13-Jan-16 17:09:53

I did complain via a appeal which is the standard way to express your dissatisfaction as I understand?

A few years ago there was 150 London children who had no place in London. They was bussed out into neighbouring counties.

More houses get built every year and no schools. Not much I can do about that really is there?

If I put down four choices, three are my nearests and the last is my sixth nearest and I get in on a sibling place I can't see how that is wrong?

afussyphase Wed 13-Jan-16 17:16:04

The issue with the sibling rule is that people rent or even buy to get a place at the sought-after schools, knowing they'll leave the area and rely on sibling places.
Our local outstanding school is just under 500m away with distance allocation maybe 450m. A friend whose dd goes to that school sees MANY families arriving by bus (from the overground station!) or car, and our neighbour's grandchild lives miles away (this being London, miles away is a LONG way out of the neighbourhood) and attends the school. This child does not live with the grandparents.
Playing the system would be MUCH harder to do if people weren't guaranteed a sibling place; they'd have to either stay in the area until all DC had a place, or go through the whole charade again for DC2, 3, ... and at that point the school will know the family and the DC will likely have mentioned where they actually live (ie not at grandma's).
Some of the charade is officially Not Allowed by council rules, but some of it is either explicitly permitted or is not followed up on. Councils rely on parents to shop other parents, but how can they? Usually we don't know circumstances of parents at schools we didn't get into; by the time you know parents at the school you're in, it's well in to YR and you're already IN that school, and anyway, sometimes you just don't get so close to school families that you could tell whether they cheated or nearly cheated for a place. Sibling places should be only for those who have not moved since their original application, at the very least!
The system's terrible. There is no choice, except for those with the rare economic power to choose their home's location to within 100m. With housing the largest cost facing families, that is a minority consisting of the most well-off. Yet renting a flat for a year (allowing £12-24k for rent) is probably 10-20x cheaper than putting 2 DC through independent primary (£35k (for 2 DC) x 7 years = £245k) so these outstanding schools can easily attract the "either top state or independent" set. A no-brainer if you have the means and are of the opinion that you must have either a "top" state or independent school.

tiggytape Wed 13-Jan-16 17:16:48

For example, the sibling policy needs looking at; something isn't right if someone who has moved out of the area retains a school place for future siblings which means that people who actually live and work in that local community can't get in and have to travel to another community.
That's true but more people are in your position too so without a sibling policy, they would be doubly punished.
For example if Buster had a younger sister due to start school in 3 years time but, by the time you applied for her, Buster's current school was Ofsted outstanding and the most popular one in the county....

...Is it fair that your family - who couldn't have a local school for Buster last year with all the hassle that brings - then cannot get Buster's sibling a place at the same school on the basis that you live too far away? You didn't choose a school in such an awkward location in the first place and it isn't your fault that the school nobody else would take a gamble on might turn out to be the most popular (and therefore oversubscribed) one?

The biggest issue is that these fundamental concerns are fairly fleeting for most.
I totally agree. Many parents have no idea of how hard it can be and many assume it will follow systems of decades ago when everyone could go to a local school.
Also, ideally all of those with children at primary school already (whether they got a desired place or not) should start looking and campaigning early for secondary school provision because that is also in short supply. Few people have any idea about the problem until faced with it when it is too late to push for real action yet, as soon as their child gets a place, they understandably forget the issue and move on.

I'm glad it worked out for you and Buster though - it sounds like a lovely school.

tiggytape Wed 13-Jan-16 17:21:25

Councils rely on parents to shop other parents, but how can they? Usually we don't know circumstances of parents at schools we didn't get into; by the time you know parents at the school you're in, it's well in to YR and you're already IN that school
Councils as a minimum check council tax histories of all applicants. In cases where a red flag appears (family moved into rented flat near school 2 months before deadline, they do many more checks in addition to that.

And it doesn't matter if a family isn't reported until their child is already in. Every year families are reported for fraudulent applications after September and every year children are removed from schools they've already started at because of it. Children can removed even after a term or two if a fraudulent address comes to light (the most common one being they suddenly move out of their rented flat next to the school back to a home they always owned and never disposed of which isn't allowed)

HeadDreamer Wed 13-Jan-16 17:27:28

Why is the sibling rule unworkable for families when clearly there are LEA who uses catchment siblings instead of plain siblings?

If a family will rent and stay in the area until all of their children entered school, then good on them. For most people, this could be 3 or 4 years for two children, and more if they have 3. If they are willing to stay that long, they are already living in the area.

The problem with out of catchment siblings going above catchment children is that parents can rent for only the application period. This is clearly ridiculous. And also creating a much larger pool of siblings then catchment siblings would have.

RustyBear Wed 13-Jan-16 17:34:13

Our borough puts in catchment siblings and other catchment children before out of catchment siblings, but they have now introduced a policy where if your first child is allocated a school which you ranked lower than your catchment school (or not at all) your subsequent children will count as in-catchment siblings for this school, as well as for the school which is actually your catchment school (as long as you indicate on your form that you want this to apply). This means that if you lose out once, you can at least make sure you can get all your children in the same school.

merrymouse Wed 13-Jan-16 17:37:10

Atleast there is some logic behind sibling places. There is no logic behind allocation being made according to where you go to church. (I know the church schools discussion has been done to death, but it is still a completely barmy system).

MummyTheGregor Wed 13-Jan-16 17:41:40

I'm confused by the original post and the title/headline.... apologies for being thick!

Does really Steph mean that her son wasn't offered any school place at all or that he was offered one miles away that wasn't on their application list?

I've never heard of no school place being offered at all? If thats the case that's really serious...

Locally my eldest is in a large intake year and many families didn't get a place in their first choice of school but were offered a place in a school that had just expanded and had a whole extra class just happened to be the other side of town in a bit of an awkward bit to get to at 9am (busiest road in town, two level crossings, very limited alternative routes or public transport).

So is Stephs case more similar to our local problem??...

(Which is really inconvenient and definitely a problem nationwide re housing vs school places not being aligned but not as serious as just not enough places 'full stop')

Shirleycantbe Wed 13-Jan-16 17:55:33

I was offered no school place at all for either of my 2 DDs (not simply not one on my list - NOTHING AT ALL). I phoned the council and was told "legally we have to provide a school place for your child but we have no information as to how we are going to achieve that".

We waited and waited and eventually went private - as presumably the council hoped we would.

A school place was eventually offered the August before my DD1 was due to start school. Not one on our list and not one that we felt able to accept.

dynevoran Wed 13-Jan-16 18:06:32

I see what you mean about changing the sibling rule being an anti avoidance measure against people who rent and then move back home further away.

But I don't think that situation is that common...far more common are people like me who either: applied to a new school with plenty of places but a mile away, applied to a school then had to move house a short distance due to circumstance e.g. landlord selling up, or applied to school which wasn't that popular and then became very popular. If you are one of those people you could find yourself inadvertently outside a shrinking catchment by the time your second child needs to attend school. It's totally impractical to take two primary age children to two different schools at the same time!

The answer is more provision across the board so this doesn't happen!

Onsera3 Wed 13-Jan-16 18:14:41

My friend in London was not offered any place for her son. She is on the fringe of our borough (the buildings on the other side of the road are a different borough) and ended up having to go to the next borough to get a place.

There are a lot of new apartment blocks so it can come down to the people with the lowest door number getting in as a 'tie-breaker' if they are living in the same building.

The school I hope to send my son to has a policy which places church attendance over siblings. Even a few years ago our area was far less populated and wealthy. There wasn't competition for a place at this church school so children who never attend church got in. Now there are enough of us who do attend whose children wouldn't be able to get a place if these siblings were allowed through. There is another school literally a stone's throw away so it will be possible for parents to collect younger siblings from the second school (esp as school day finishes 10 mins apart).

sparechange Wed 13-Jan-16 18:21:52

A few of our local schools have now applied a sibling catchment, which is around 2 miles (compared to 400m for their usual catchment) which seems like a good compromise between not punishing renters who have to move out of the 400m catchment for reasons outside of their control, while doing something to stop the scam renters who take a short lease of a small flat near the highly rated schools for the duration of the application process, and then move the family back to the big house in the cheaper area down the road with the less desirable schools.
There were denials that this was happening, but living locally to the school, it was obvious. How else can a school with a 400m catchment have local streets clogged with cars at the start and end of the day, more often than not with one child being collected.

RueDeWakening Wed 13-Jan-16 18:24:16

Gregor there were over 200 children in my DD's year who were offered no school at all on allocation day.

In October of year 1 there were still over 20 children who had never been offered a school place, the council put in another bulge class to accommodate them in the end, having strong-armed a local school near the middle of the borough to accept them. DD's school took a bulge class in her year, they are taught in a portakabin in the playground.

2boysnamedR Wed 13-Jan-16 18:37:12

The catchment for the school my boys are in is 2km but parents still drive. They literally two roads away.

It rains, for example. Or they are going out to clubs.

NickiFury Wed 13-Jan-16 18:44:43

And this is why I cannot get excited about the scare mongering regarding attainment being linked to attendance. I guess that's only the case when your child has a place. If they haven't got one for your child then its nothing to worry about hmm

Obs2016 Wed 13-Jan-16 19:09:25

Being offered no place st all, is more common than you think these days.

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