10 November 2009

School fairs and admissions criteria

Several weeks ago we attended the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting which was investigating admissions to primary schools and the provision of places in Dulwich and East Dulwich. The treatment of parents by Southwark’s admissions team and the action needed to ensure adequate primary school places available were, of course, the main topics discussed. Thanks to pressure from local parents and their Labour representatives, Southwark’s Lib Dem/Tory administration has been forced to add staff to their admissions teams and put in place plans for extra “bulge” classes in local schools to cope with possible extra demand in the future.

But in addition to these shorter term measures, there was also discussion about what else could be done to avoid this year’s debacle being repeated in the longer term. One telling contribution to this debate came from the headteacher of a local primary that was performing extremely well for its pupils, but which was still consistently undersubscribed. The school, which I won’t name here, had been failing several years ago but had been turned round thanks to the efforts of the headteacher and her staff. The problem was the school was suffereing from “reputational lag” – the lasting impression that a school is poor among local parents even when results and inspections say the opposite.

Sadly, local parents are not getting the chance to hear headteachers talk about the successes at their schools, which means that undeserved reputations for failure are continuing to stick. Having heard the headteacher speak, I suggested that the council should start hosting “school fairs” to bring parents looking for a local primary school for their children into contact with headteachers that they might not otherwise get the chance to meet and talk to. The contribution is recorded in the minutes of the meetig here:

"A member of the public suggested that area based school fairs should be introduced with the specific aim of pubicising the admissions process and the requirements on parents to apply for a place within the primary school system. An additional aim would be to promote those schools suffering from a “reputational lag” in respect of their improving performance."

Overview and Scrutiny Committees are able to make formal reccomendations for action to the Council’s Lib Dem/Tory Executive, who will then give their response. It’s good to see then, that my suggestion made it into the formal set of reccomendations made by the committee. The wording of reccomendation 19 is:

"That new publicity include area based school fairs at which the heads and senior staff of multiple schools can host stalls and meet parents. This will bring more parents into contact with staff from successful schools which are currently undersubscribed. One aim of the fairs should be to overcome the "reputational lag" from which some schools suffer."

Now we need to see if the council will act on this, and the raft of other crucial reccomendations made by the committee, to see if the fairs will take place. I hope they will and I hope they will help more local children find a good local school.

Admissions criteria
On a separate, but related issue, readers of this blog will know that at the same meeting, Victoria asked whether the current admissions criteria could be looked at again as they seemed to be unitentionally adding to the likelihood of children ending up at a school some distance away from home. 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 you instead you may be sent to an undersubscribed school a considerable distance away. Other boroughs treat the distance rules slightly differently, so in Lewisham for example, the admissions team is allowed greater discretion to deal with children who miss out on places at schools nearest to them.

The recomendations state:

That the admissions forum review the unintended consequences of the distance criteria whereby failure to get into the nearest school (because of its small catchment area) may work against getting into the second and other nearest schools

That the admissions forum review the unintended consequences of the distance criteria whereby failure to get into the nearest school (because of its small catchment area) may work against getting into the second and other nearest schools.

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