Tuesday 6 March 2018

Barnet Council Secondary School place allocation - Nearly 1/3rd of Pupils don't get their preferred school allocation

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Councillor Reuben Thompstone - Education Supremo in Barnet
The Barnet Eye is not surprised to learn that nearly one third of pupils applying for a secondary school place in the Borough have been denied their first choice. One of the reasons for this is the huge amount of overdevelopment in certain wards in Barnet. Councillor Reuben Thompstone, Chairman of the Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee, said: “As Barnet’s population continues to grow, the demand for secondary places is increasing each year as the bulge in primary school pupil numbers feeds through to secondary level" Around 14% of pupils did not get any of their top three choices. This year, the council received 7,887 applications; 4,094 from Barnet residents and 3,793 from residents in other boroughs.

The statistics reveal that nearly as many applications are made from outside the Borough as within the Borough. The reasons for this is that Barnet schools have an excellent academic record. Some of these applications from outside the Borough will be from people living near the borders of Barnet, where this is there nearest school, some will be from people seeking a place at one of the Boroughs religious schools and some will be from people seeking places at our Grammar schools, which have excellent academic records. 

One of the effects of this pattern of allocation is that many pupils seeking a place at their local school, which is within walking distance, are denied a place by people driving miles, clogging up the roads and creating air pollution, to secure a place at a better school. These pupils, denied a place, then have to make a journey themeselves. My family have had personal experience of this situation. Our eldest daughter was denied a place at Mill Hill County High School, a mere 0.98 mils from our house, as we were not in the catchment area. The reason is that Mill Hill County had all manner of criteria for entry, allocating places for all manner of criteria as well as an entrance exam. At the time my daughter was the best swimmer in the country in her age group and won six gold medals at the National Swimming championships.  As she didn't have time for the private lessons that most have to "pass the test", she was denied a place. We appealed on the grounds that it was our nearest school and that as she had to attend eleven training sessions a week, it would be impractical to go elsewhere. Sadly the school weren't interested. It seemed that excellence in sport wasn't recognised as a genuine mitigating criteria. My daughter became one of the thousands of pupils who require a car/bus journey to school, in her case, in Finchley.

I have long thought that a primary criteria for admission at schools should be to give preference to those who can walk to school. This would massively reduce congestion on our roads. At present, Mill Hill is in the process of seeing a highly contentious planning application for Hasmonean School in Page Street. A quick look at the map for objectors and supporters reveals that most objectors were in Mill Hill in the locality of the school and most supporters were from outside Mill Hill. With the growing population in Mill Hill, secondary school places are clearly required, however one of the main concerns of protesters is the traffic generated by pupils getting to the school. It is clear that in the case of Grammar and religious schools, where wider catchment areas apply than local comprehensive schools, there should be proper travel plans. These should include contracts for parents to observe the plans and exclusions or expulsions for pupils/parents who sign up to travel plans then selfishly ignore the commitments that they've made. 

It seems unlikely that we will ever see a situation where every parent and every pupil gets their first choice. It does however seem completely unfair that over 30% are being denied a place. We've been through the process three times and it is a highly stressful time. Parents are given little or no proper support and guidance in the process. I would be interested to see a heat map of the areas where the most applicants failed. Allocation for some schools is a postcode lottery, as we found out. In the year we applied, the area for catchment was 0.95 of a mile, so our friends living 25 doors up the road got a place. For selective schools, parents with cash, who can afford private tuition, clearly get a leg up the ladder. I have no issue with people wanting the best for their children, but this is clearly discriminating against the brighter children of poor families, who are not trained in the technique for passing the test for such schools. As for religious schools, this is a highly problematic issue. Any vicar or priest in Barnet will tell you that the pews are always filled by parents and children of a certain age. They show up for a two year period, then disappear without trace. 

The council needs to get a grip on the issue of secondary education. With all of the development, we need new secondary schools, we need a fairer allocations system and we need to ensure that measures to get people off the school run and out of cars are enforced. For the two thirds of pupils who got their school of choice, I am pleased the stress is over. For those who haven't I have every sympathy, been their, done that and got the T-shirt. I just find it upsetting that in the eleven years since we went through the hassle, upset and aggrevation, there has clearly been no improvement at all.  Last year, I attended a council meeting where Reuben Thompstone was presented a petition asking him to lobby the Secretary of State for more funding for education in Barnet. London Boroughs are having budget allocations cut, in favour of other parts of the country. Councillor Thompstone refused, on the grounds that he didn't want to indulge in "public grandstanding against the government". It was suggested that he didn't need to grandstand, just make a sane, coherent case for funding for our excellent schools. He refused. Bear this in mind, if you are in the one third who haven't got the school of your choice.

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