Friday, April 18, 2014

'Crisis' warning as up to four in 10 British children refused first choice primary school

Up to four in 10 children missed out on their first choice primary school in parts of England while hundreds of pupils were not allocated places at all.

There were warnings of a mounting admissions "crisis" as figures show that almost 40 per cent of infants in parts of the country failed to secure places at the main school of their choice.

Officials were also warned to brace themselves for a surge in the number of official appeals.

In some areas pupils were not allocated any places at all, including 75 infants in one area alone, it emerged.

One admissions expert told how some parents were being forced to make do with schools two or three miles away despite living within a few hundred metres of the gates of a state primary, leaving them “distraught”.

For the first time, allocations for 600,000 children entering reception classes were published at the same time on Wednesday as part of national “offer day” for primaries.

Data obtained by the Telegraph showed an overall rise in the number of four-year-olds entering the education system this year. It has been put down to a spike in the birth rate combined with the effect of immigration in some areas.

Nationally, more than half of local authorities reported a decline in the number of parents securing their preferred school for children this year compared with 2013, with parts of the south hit hardest.

The disclosure prompted warnings that more parents were preparing to lodge official appeals against allocations. Numbers are expected to dramatically eclipse the 31,150 made in 2010/11, when the last national figures were published.

The Government insists £5 billion will spent over the course of this parliament to expand primary schools, with 260,000 extra places being created to date.

Ministers have blamed Labour for the shortfall, insisting the party failed to address the looming crisis when it was in power.

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said an increase in the number of academies and free schools – state-funded institutions run free of local authority control – made it harder for councils to plan primary provision.

“We know that there is a present and growing crisis in primary school places,” she said. “We know that the government – for all the money they are throwing at the problem – haven’t got the mechanism or ability to plan school provision where it is needed.”

Graham Jones, an education consultant, who helps families challenge admissions rulings, said: “It’s been my busiest day ever.

“We’ve had parents shocked and distraught to miss out on the school 500 metres away only to be allocated one two or three miles down the road. You expect to travel for a secondary school, but not a primary.”

John Chard, head of School Appeals, said: “I would imagine that we’re going to see an increase in appeals, particularly in these pinch points where there’s not enough primary school places.”

Research by the Telegraph found that:

- Nationally, around one-in-seven pupils – 86,000 – is likely to have missed out on their first choice school;

- The squeeze on places was more pronounced in the south, with fewer pupils who secured their first choice school in Brighton, Bristol, East Sussex, Essex, Kent, Milton Keynes, North Somerset, Poole and Wiltshire;

- In Poole, Dorset, the number of pupils rejected from their first choice school more than doubled from seven to 16 per cent in just a year after application numbers surged by just over 11 per cent to almost 1,700;

- Overall, the rejection rate was highest in London where 19 per cent of pupils failed to get their first choice – the same as last year, despite applications rising by 3,000 overall. In Kensington and Chelsea, west London, 38 per cent failed to get into their first choice primary this year, up from 35 per cent in 2013, while 23 per cent were rejected from at least three favoured schools;

- In the Midlands, Derbyshire, Dudley, Solihull, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire also reported fewer first choice allocations, while numbers also fell in some northern authorities such as Liverpool, Wakefield, Knowsley and County Durham.

- Some areas confirmed a number of children had been given no place at all, including 75 in Richmond upon Thames, 26 in Camden and 10 in Somerset;

- But more children gained places at their preferred primary school in several council areas – particularly in the north and Midlands – including Stoke, Rutland, North East Lincolnshire, Middlesbrough, Darlington and Bury.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We are increasing the number of good school places by tackling underperformance and opening new free schools and academies. We have also more than doubled to £5bn the funding available to councils to create new school places, and are allowing good schools to expand without the restrictions and bureaucracy they faced in the past.

"This has already led to the creation of 260,000 new school places - all of which are in areas where there is a shortage of places.”

He added: "In addition we are making the admissions process far simpler for parents. For the first time we have introduced a single national offer day for primary schools so parents will no longer have to negotiate with different councils deciding on places on different days.”

Tristram Hunt, Labour Shadow Education Secretary, said: “David Cameron is failing in his first duty in education: to provide enough good places for every child.

“He has prioritised his free school programme, which has diverted two-thirds of new places away from areas most in need of primary school places.”


British children are battling for best primary school places from age of TWO as record numbers of youngsters are denied chosen schools

Parents are placing their children in attached nurseries from the age of two in a bid to get them into the best primary schools, says a new report.

Toddlers are being enrolled in school nurseries so they will be prioritised over other children when it comes to gaining a place at over-subscribed institutions.

This effectively imposes a lower school starting age on children and discriminates against those sent elsewhere or kept at home as toddlers, warns the schools regulator.

It comes as record numbers of children will be denied their chosen primary schools today as desperate parents lobby teachers in the hope of winning places.

Fewer pupils in many areas will be awarded their first-choice schools amid a surge in applications driven by a baby boom.

As many as one in three children in some parts of the country - and about one in eight overall - are expected to miss out on the schools they wanted to attend in September.

More than a fifth of parents surveyed about the school admissions process said they visit schools and ‘try to be friendly to the staff’ in a bid to gain an advantage.

The figures emerged as the Children’s Commissioner highlighted controversial admissions practices used by schools, including giving priority to pupils placed in their own nurseries.

In a report published today, Dr Maggie Atkinson lifted the lid on tactics which allow schools to cream off the brightest or wealthiest pupils and deter more troublesome youngsters.

These include charging £300 for uniforms and telling parents not to bother applying because their children wouldn’t ‘fit in’ or failing to return phone calls to book visits.

She particularly voiced concerns over instances of primary schools ‘giving preference to children who have attended their nursery provision’.

‘In some cases, it could be argued that using this admissions criterion imposes a de facto age of compulsory schooling for a child of two years of age, on parents who want to send their child to that school at 4, the usual age of entry to reception year,' she said.

‘In addition, some of the relevant nursery provision has a paid element, which adjudicators have reasoned discriminates against those who are either unable or unwilling to pay.’

The findings came as research among dozens of local councils by the Mail shows that fewer pupils than last year in many areas are being offered their first-choice school amid a surge in applications.

In Kent, the country’s biggest education authority, the proportion of offers to first-choice schools has dropped from 86.5 per cent last year to 85 per cent.

A survey by parenting website Netmums into parents’ experiences of the admissions system found that seven per cent start thinking about their children’s schooling before they even fall pregnant.

But two thirds - 65 per cent - found the process ‘fraught’ because some schools are ‘awful’ while others are ‘excellent’.

Tactics to improve their chances of getting places include putting pupils into schools’ own nurseries - tried by 46 per cent - and buying houses close to their favoured school, cited by 21 per cent.

Twenty-two per cent said they use friendliness to try to win over teachers.

Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard said: ‘Competition for what parents perceive to be the best schools is now so tough they will do almost anything to gain their child a place.

‘Some ways like moving house to be close to the school can cost tens of thousands of pounds, while others such as applying for a nursery place at the school in a bid to boost their chances are bending the rules - but determined mums and dads will do what it takes.

‘It’s a real sign of the times that people now begin thinking about which school to send their child to before they are even pregnant.’

Schools must allocate their places according to strict criteria rather than allowing ingratiation by parents to influence them.

But testimonies of parents interviewed for the Children’s Commissioner’s report suggested some schools ‘potentially “game” the system by simply not being encouraging of admissions of particular groups or types of vulnerable children’.

The research aimed to investigate claims from heads that some schools use loopholes in admissions rules to ‘improve’ their intake and weed out pupils with behaviour problems, special needs or low academic ability.

It suggested some evidence of the practices, although it was not thought to be widespread.

Dr Atkinson also criticised vague ‘points’ systems used by some faith schools to allocate places. Some rewarded parents for giving practical support to a church or place of worship, it was claimed.

This ‘could be viewed as amounting to charging a fee to apply to the school, albeit “in kind” rather than in cash’.


Win: VA Community College System to Change 'Free Speech Zone' Policy

A system of 23 community colleges in Virginia is about to become more in line with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Virginia Community College System (VCCS) is seeking to alter its policy on free-speech zones in response to a lawsuit brought by student Christian Parks.

    Last September, Thomas Nelson Community College prohibited Christian Parks from expressing his Christian beliefs in a large courtyard of the college. An officer from the college’s police department told him he must stop preaching because the content of his speech might offend someone. School officials then told Parks that his speech violated the Student Code of Conduct and VCCS policies.

    The Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, Parks v. The Members of the State Board of the Virginia Community College System, explains that sidewalks and open spaces on campus are areas where students have broad free speech rights, including the right to express their views anonymously and spontaneously.

The First Amendment prohibits laws which limit free speech and the free exercise of religion; however, many college campuses put in place codes which violate the U.S. Constitution.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently surveyed 427 schools across the nation and found that more than 58 percent “substantially prohibit protected speech.” The good news is that these restrictive policies have been declining for six consecutive years, and this recent lawsuit sparked yet another victory:

    In a court filing last week in support of a motion from both sides to put the lawsuit on hold, the community college system said it would not enforce its current policy as it works to develop a new student policy.

    "Both parties desire to suspend the … current policy in order to allow (Parks) and all other students to speak freely on campus" until a new policy is adopted, the joint filing said. With continuing talks between the Alliance and the state's attorney general's office, "counsel for the parties believe that they may be able to reach an amicable settlement in this case."

A proposed settlement is expected by early May.


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