Monday, May 18, 2009

Britain: The battle to find a good school

They cheat. They lie. They give a false address. . . No, not our MPs - just parents trying to find a decent school for their children, finds Julia Llewellyn Smith. Many of Britain's "sink" government schools would make any responsible parent quail

The letter was a shock. "Dear parent/guardian, Thank you for your primary-school application for the 2009/2010 school year. I am sorry to inform you that we are unable to offer you a place at any of your preferred schools."

I didn't think I'd asked for too much. With my eldest daughter, Sasha, due to start reception in September, I'd applied to my nearest state primary school. We live in the wealthy borough of Richmond, west London, and until this year the school had always been undersubscribed with most neighbours choosing to send their children private from the age of four.

However, we were impressed by the school's new, glowing Ofsted report, by the dynamic head and its happy, motivated children. We applied, congratulating ourselves on the fees we'd save, delighted our children would be able to walk to school and enjoy a circle of local friends.

We were far from alone. Everywhere, job-fearing parents, shocked at extortionate school fees, have decided to chance the state system. "Oxbridge favours state applicants," they convince each other. "We don't want our children to grow up in a privileged ghetto." The result is school places everywhere are being pursued as hotly as premier-league footballers in a nightclub. Two thirds of local authorities have reported a surge in primary-school applications, while the number of children aged five to seven in classes bigger than the legal limit of 30 has risen to 10,010, more than double the 2007 figure of 4,280.

At secondary level, 92,000 children have been denied their first choice of school, while 30,000 have been offered none anywhere. Official figures for primary schools have not yet been published, but a huge shortfall of places is reported in, among others, Birmingham, Bristol and Surrey. In London, 25 out of 33 boroughs are unable to cope with demand.

To win an elusive place, parents are using tactics that make Machiavelli look like Snow White. "These are extreme times and they push people into extreme measures," says Janette Wallis, an editor of the Good Schools Guide. "People have always been willing to stretch the truth for a good school. There's no question we are seeing the most highly driven parents, who would have done anything to get their children in a private school in normal times, use the same dedication and drive to get them into a good state school."

Last week, Harrow Council, in north-west London, said that it was prosecuting Mranil Patel for fraud, after she pretended she lived at her mother's address to win her son a place at a popular school. In fact, Mrs Patel was living at her husband's house two miles away. She claimed she was living at her mother's during a brief split with her husband, but reconciled with him shortly after the school's application deadline. If found guilty, she risks a fine of up to £5,000 – or a prison sentence.

Outwardly, parents tutted; secretly, many felt: "There but for the grace of God…" A recent YouGov survey showed that one in four parents would lie or cheat to win a school place. Since many are as coy about their deviousness as Hollywood starlets are about Botox, the real figure is probably higher.

In my madder moments, I have plotted how my husband and I could "separate" so I could temporarily move into a flat near a sought-after girls' comprehensive. Once Sasha's place was won (guaranteeing her sister's), we'd "reconcile". My more scrupulous husband will not consent, however; just as he refused to find God (we are both atheists) in order to get Sasha into the Ofsted-rated "outstanding" church primary yards from the house we used to live in.

Other parents had no such qualms. On Sundays, the ugly church at which they were required to worship three out of four Sundays a month for at least a year to secure a place, was surrounded by double-parked four-by-fours driven from as far as 10 miles away. The outfits and air-kissing on the pavement outside reminded me of Henley. "Of course the vicar knows most of us are agnostics at best," says Jane, who has three children at the school, despite living six miles away, and is a secret atheist. "His attitude is so long as there are bums on seats, who cares? We're all frantically volunteering for Sunday school, organising bake sales and having him over for drinks to keep him onside. It's totally hypocritical and everyone's in on it."

After all, an example is set from on high. No one doubts Tony Blair's or David Cameron's faith, but both shunned local primaries for their children in favour of distant church schools.

Other common ploys include having children "statemented" for special needs, which gives them priority in many entrance policies. "My child's a bit of a tearaway, but with the help of an educational psychologist, we're hoping to transform it into serious dyslexia and ADHD so he can get into ------," a neighbour cheerfully told me recently. Some put the "wrong" postcode with a correct address, knowing councils use the postcode to measure distance between home and school. If they are detected, they claim a slip of the pen. Others forge necessary council tax documents.

Some stay within the limits, if not the spirit, of the law by buying or renting a second home, or even a caravan, as close as possible (since catchments change from year to year) to their preferred school gates. Recently, John Burton, chair of governors of St Peter's, Eaton Square, a C of E primary much loved by politicians' children, admitted his family had twice moved into rented accommodation, while keeping his original home, to win his daughter a place at popular church secondary schools. "Parents pay money [for private schools] and everyone thinks that's fine, yet people think it's odd we'd want to move to stay in the state sector," he said, defending himself.

Parents in Devon, a grammar [selective school] hot spot, report an influx of pupils from as far as London, who live in their parents' second homes in term time and return to the capital for holidays.

Schools are fighting back with councils such as Poole using measures to spy on possible cheats. Friends of mine who have applied to church schools have got used to the vicar "unexpectedly" dropping in to check they are actually living at the address on their application forms. These vicars also demand to see parents' Baptism certificates and quiz children on the intricacies of their alleged faith.

Fiona Millar, partner of Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and vice-chairwoman of Comprehensive Futures, an organisation that lobbies for fair admissions, says it's unfair to blame parents for wanting the best for their children. "The Government has set schools up as a market, so people are automatically going to gravitate to what they perceive to be the best. But the problem with creating a marketplace is you need complete elasticity of supply and demand. It works for baked beans when if more people want them you can produce more, but you can't magically conjure up more school places in a crisis year like this."

After years of pious hectoring by the likes of Millar about supporting the state system, I am more than a little disillusioned to discover that option is not practically available. The council is legally obliged to find Sasha a place, but with the five nearest schools to me oversubscribed, the one they will eventually offer seems certain to be miles away.

So Sasha's going to a private prep school. As for secondary school, I wonder if the vicar needs help with the flower rota? Or maybe I'll call the divorce lawyers after all.


Australia: Rookie teachers quitting

You'd quit too if you had to stand up in front of an undisciplined rabble every day

YOUNG teachers are leaving the profession at an "alarming" rate, new figures reveal, threatening a staffing crisis in NSW public schools, with half of the teaching workforce approaching retirement. The number of teachers resigning after four years or less in the job has increased by nearly 20 per cent over two years, according to official government figures obtained by the NSW Opposition under freedom of information laws. The figures show a similar increase in the rate of resignations among teachers with five to nine years' experience. The overall number of teachers resigning from public schools has increased by nearly 10 per cent over the same period, between 2006 and 2008.

The Opposition's education spokesman Adrian Piccoli said the figures were "alarming" and suggested the State Government had failed to provide young teachers with enough support. "The NSW Labor Government thinks they can churn out graduates, send them into schools that are under-resourced and without support, and hope for the best. These statistics show that theory is not working," Mr Piccoli said.

"The way to deal with it is to support young teachers with more mentors, help them deal with challenging students and give them more opportunity for professional development." Mr Piccoli said the Government had "turned a blind eye" to the looming teacher shortage crisis and that teachers were being asked to do "more with fewer resources". "No one lasts in a climate like that," he said.

The NSW Teachers Federation president, Bob Lipscombe, said the new figures presented a worrying future for state education. "This is particularly alarming because we know that 50 per cent of the teaching service will reach retirement age by 2016," he said. "If we can't hold these early-career teachers in our system then the future will be bleak."

Mr Lipscombe said the new figures reinforced the findings from an Auditor-General's report released early last year, which showed that 41 per cent of schoolteachers were aged 50 and over. A third of schoolteachers - more than 16,000 - would reach retirement age in three years. It was estimated that by 2016, 25,000 staff would reach retirement age.

A national audit conducted by the Australian Education Union of more than 1500 new teachers, released this year, showed that more than half those surveyed did not believe they would be teaching in 10 years. The main reasons cited for dissatisfaction with teaching included the workload and behaviour management.

Mr Lipscombe said despite repeated warnings the NSW Department of Education was not doing enough to attract and retain teachers. "The State Government must take action," he said. "It can't just hope there are going to be sufficient teachers in the future."

The teachers' union has lobbied the State Government to reduce classroom teaching time by one hour for all new teachers. It says the Government has released permanent teachers from an hour of teaching time, but it has not given thousands of beginning teachers, who work on a temporary basis, the same allowance.

The union has asked for more mentoring for teachers but says the Department of Education had not increased the number of mentors from 50 full-time positions it provided in 2003.

Last year, Mr Lipscombe said the State Government issued a press release saying there were 110 people on a waiting list to fill vacancies at a school in a country town. "Yet they were unable to fill two vacancies the next day and the following week they had three vacancies," Mr Lipscombe said.

Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said experienced teachers also needed to be rewarded with extra pay to ensure they remained in the profession. Starting teachers in NSW earn $52,745 and classroom teachers earn a maximum of $78,667. Teachers need to be promoted out of the classroom to head a department before they can earn $90,532. "Teachers are overworked, undervalued and continue to be underpaid," Mr Gavrielatos said.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Verity Firth said that for a workforce of about 50,000 permanent schoolteachers, resignation rates were very low. "Last year, the retention rate of teachers in NSW public schools in their first year of service was 96 per cent and the retention rate of teachers in their first five years of service was nearly 88 per cent," she said. "There are a vast range of initiatives in place to support our teachers, particularly those just starting out. This financial year we are investing $5 million in the Teacher Mentor Program, which began in 2003.

"NSW public school classroom teachers are among the highest paid public school classroom teachers in Australia. "The Rees Government is not complacent about our strong teacher retention rates and will continue to investigate further ways to ensure teaching remains an attractive and rewarding career."


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