Primary school shortages – MFM investigates

Councils around the country are struggling to find school places for all the children in their area. MFM talks to families affected and explains what you can do if you don’t get offered a primary school place that’s right for your family

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The number of school age children in the UK is increasing faster than the number of school places. With some councils making emergency plans to teach children in “split shifts” or telling parents to educate their kids at home, MFM takes a look at the problem.

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Sylvia Gatherau, from Brent, contacted MadeForMums after her 5-year-old daughter Grace was left without a school place for September 2011. Despite living just two minutes from her local school, well within the catchment area, Grace was offered a choice of two schools outside London, both a 40-minutes bus ride away. As both Sylvia and her husband work in Central London, the logistics were impossible.

“Since the beginning of the school year in September, Grace had been at home, looked after by me,” Sylvia told MFM. “I extended my maternity leave and then we had to put her back into nursery. It’s far from ideal as my daughter needs stimulation and activities that I cannot provide if I work from home for six or seven hours a day.”

In October, Grace was offered a place by Westminster council. Though still an hour from the family’s home, Grace’s parents accepted, as it was on their way to work. Grace begun in mid-October, weeks after her peers.

“Grace was only in school for a week and then it was half term. To get there, we’ve been trying different options and considering buying a cargo trike, which will be cheaper than a car,” Sylvia said.

Sylvia isn’t the only mum struggling to get her child into a conveniently located school place. She’s part of a group of parents who are putting pressure on the Government to respond more quickly and thoroughly to the problem. No School Place aims to inform and empower parents to get their children into schools that suit the whole family.

We’ve also been hearing from other parents who’ve been told to home school their children, and even discovered the case of 10 children from Portishead, Somerset, who are taken by taxi to another town every day because places are in such short supply at their local schools.

Why aren’t there enough school places?

Warnings that the UK is short on primary school places have been increasing for several years.  A rapidly increasing birth rate over the last decade combined with stagnation in the housing market has led to many councils claiming a crisis in primary education availability.

The worst affected areas include Brent, Barking & Dagenham and Harrow in London; Bristol; Bradford; Dorset and Slough, but the problem is nationwide.

In some areas children are being taught in split shifts – because there just isn’t enough space or enough teachers. While in other areas, children are moving to unsuitable buildings, including an old MFI warehouse, just to have somewhere to learn.

The number of pupils in state primary school is expected to increase by 14% in the next year, with the biggest rise expected in London. This is due to both immigration and a high birth rate. The state of the housing market is also to blame, with fewer movement options and parents unable to move to an area with better or more schools.

What is the government doing?

An estimated 64,500 primary school places are needed in London, while around 350,000 are expected to be needed nationwide by 2015.

“We know that many schools across the country face real concerns about how to provide every child with a school place,” a spokesperson for the Department of Education (DofE) said. “We are investing £500 million to meet pressures caused by increased birth rates.”

The DofE has announced that a simpler admissions system will be put into place in February 2012, for the admissions year 2013. This will double the amount of time parents have to appeal a decision from 10 days to 20 days. It will also increase the flexibility for schools to bend the strict 30 pupils per class rule in the case of siblings or twins wanting to attend the same school. It will also see parents able to apply directly to schools instead of local authorities.

In the capital, London councils have been allocated £260 million for new school buildings.

However, the Coalition Government has been criticised for cancelling a Labour policy to boost schools. It has promised to increase the number of primary school places available from 2012, but with many councils reaching crisis point over this year’s admissions, we’re wondering if it’s too little too late.

What should you do?

The deadline for applying for a September 2012 place is in January 2012 but check with your local authority as exact dates can vary. Swat up and know your rights. This might include telephoning the school to check you are definitely in the catchment area.

After children in public care have received a place, schools then use the following criteria to determine which children get the remaining places. If you don’t think your child will be eligible don’t waste your energy on an unlikely option. The criteria includes:

  • Any disabilities that would make travelling a distance to school difficult for either the child or parent
  • Siblings are at the school already
  • How close you live to the school

For faith and independent schools the criteria can be different (and often just as difficult to meet). If you’re keen on a particular school, ring up to check their admissions criteria.

What if you’re unsuccessful?

National Offer Day is the 1st March, 2012.

If you don’t get offered the school place you were hoping for, stay calm and ask to be put on the waiting list for your chosen school. Look at alternative schools and apply there too. Even if these are also full, they may have shorter or more fluid waiting lists.

Appeal. You will have 10 days to appeal decisions (20 days from 2013), if you’re dissatisfied with the school place you’ve been offered. This will put your case in front of an independent panel who will judge the school’s inability to take on more pupils with your child’s need to attend that particular school. Head to our guide to appeals for more info.

You can get more information at the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), which has a downloadable booklet and free phone line to help you understand the process and give you the best chance of ending up at the school that’s best for your family.

What else can you do?

  • Raise awareness by writing to your MP, joining other parents and getting in touch with local press
  • Speak to other councils. There may be school places in another area, which are more convenient for your travel needs

Useful websites and deadlines

The deadline for primary school admissions for September 2012 is January 15, 2012.

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