13 October 2009

Primary School Places – report from Overview and Scrutiny Meeting

Not long back from tonight’s Overview and Scrutiny meeting which all three of us attended and spoke at.

You can read the Council’s report, which we essentially talked around here: http://moderngov.southwarksites.com/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=115&MId=2783&Ver=4

To summarise some of the key (but by no means all!) of the points:

1. We’re not sure that the council explanation was fully adequate. It should certainly have picked up the fact that there was a problem sooner i.e. before the allocations went out. The council is blaming some of the problems on late applications, but in fact there were only 45 late applications across the whole of the south of the borough. The main issue seems to be that there were too few staff in the admissions team - they have significantly fewer officers in Southwark than in Lewisham for example. Sadly, the council made the decision to have such a small team and it simply wasn’t able to provide the service that most local parents felt they needed. Three additional staff are now being recruited to the team – two will cover primary admissions and the third will have a communications role. From all the comments made at the meeting, it seems that this should go a long way to resolving many concerns that people had this year. We do hope that the council keeps its promise on this one and that the new staff arrive imminently. Additionally, although we won’t get one uniform application form for all parents in London until next year (for Sept 2011 starters onwards) the Council did agree to work more closely with Lambeth and Lewisham to help free up places earlier in the application process.

2. There was a very lengthy discussion about whether we can be sure that the current ‘bulge’ in population will revert back to around current levels in approximately 2018/2019. We’re not sure that the council can be any surer about this than they currently are but the committee did note that further investigation of all available figures was needed.

3. There were lots of comments from parents about how confusing the current admissions system is and how this exacerbates problems. Hopefully an increased admissions team will help. Gavin suggested hosting one or several ‘schools fayres’ at which parents could have face-to-face chats with teachers, find out more about local schools and receive lots of help with negotiating the admissions process.

4. In terms of parents having all the information they need about applying this year and being aware of which schools might have additional ‘bulge classes’ the suggestion is that this is demand-led. This seemed to be supported by most people present. This would mean that rather than telling parents where additional classes might be, which might encourage second-guessing of where they are most likely to get a place and inadvertently add to some schools being over or under subscribed, seven or eight schools (within the East Dulwich, Nunhead, Peckham Rye and Camberwell area) would be lined-up to take additional classes but only those with the demand for places would end up with the extra classes come next September. The council is also confident that offers of places can be made in March which is much better than the May date previously stated.

5. The current admission rules add to the likelihood of children ending up at a school some distance away from home. Victoria, along with a couple of others in the room, suggested looking again at these rules as a way of alleviating the these problems. The current system allocates first to children where it is their nearest community school and only after that to children who have another school closer to them. This means that if you live just a little bit too far from your nearest school and you don't get in there, then you stand very little chance with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th nearest (due to this rule) and instead you may be sent to an undersubscribed school a considerable distance away. We don’t know whether there is scope to change this – tell us what you think.

6. The general consensus was that a new school would not solve the current problems and is also unrealistic. The GLA officer projections for the area are for a few years of baby boom with demand falling back to previous levels in about five years time. It would take nearly that long to build a new school and cost £10-20m. There also doesn’t seem to be a site where it could be located. The work the council did very recently to find a suitable location for Harris Boys seems to pretty much confirms this final point. So demand-led bulge classes plus a better and bigger admissions department are the proposed solutions.

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