When we decided to move home to another part of the country, hundreds of miles away, we realised that finding a new primary school for our five-year-old son was going to be one of the biggest headaches. But the process was even more complicated and stressful than we ever imagined.
For our son, himself, there was already the sorrow of leaving a school where he was happy and popular as well as the tension of knowing that he would be starting in a new, unfamiliar one.
We accepted that the move would be an upheaval, so it was even more frustrating when we found there was no way of applying for a new school until we had exchanged on our house in the new town. Only then, the local authority told us, could we apply to each individual school to see if they had any places.
In our case there were only a couple of weeks between exchange and completion so we faced living in a new town with no school for our son to attend unless we found a place quickly. The race was on. We ended up initially applying to more than 10 schools in the vicinity. Surely one would have a place.
Over the coming days we fielded calls, emails and letters from all the schools. They got back to us quickly, but they were all full. I later discovered that, nationally, one in five primary schools is full or over capacity and there was a huge surge in reception applications last year.
Moving was stressful enough but getting an in-year admission, as it's called, was becoming a full time job. When we explained our dilemma to our son's old headmaster he shrugged, admitting the process was a 'nightmare.' In the end only one school locally did have a place. But it was several miles distant. The obvious option was the school right on our doorstep – a matter of yards away. With time still pressing we decided to investigate making an appeal to the local authority.
Neither my wife nor I had realised what a daunting process this would be.We were asked by the local authority to fill in a lengthy form giving our reasons for the appeal which we duly did. One of the primary schools in question was an academy – meaning another form and another separate appeal.
Doing a bit of research I discovered that only around 15 per cent of appeals are successful. There are even companies offering advice to parents on how to present their case. We decided to continue on our own.
Two weeks later we found ourselves in front of a hearing at the county hall, complete with three independent panellists, a legal clerk and a county council officer with a bulging case file! I was glad to see local democracy at work but it was intimidating to say the least.
We had to present our case, stating the reasons that we believed our son should go to a school nearer where we lived. We were then quizzed by both the panellists and the county council officer.
It felt a bit like a courtroom and I wondered how someone without a good deal of education, confidence or presenting skills might fare.
The county council officer set out his case for refusing our son a place at the schools in question citing problems such as traffic management and class sizes.
We countered his arguments by pointing out that if we had to send our son some distance we would be contributing to increased traffic and were able to counter his points on the class sizes at one of the schools.
There was then an anxious wait of several days to see what the verdict from the independent panellists would be. We were overjoyed when we learned that the panel had been persuaded that it was in the best interests of our son that he should go to the school on our doorstep.
I felt we'd had a fair hearing and was glad that the right decision had been made. But I felt that the process definitely benefits middle class and well educated parents who are used to arguing their case and have the time and resources to do careful research.
It is also a long winded affair which, when it comes to an in term admission makes some disruption to a child's education inevitable.
Here are some tips we picked up on the way...
1. Do your homework. You need to research your distances from all the schools, any local issues that might help and read up on the schools in question – Ofsted reports and the like.
2. Go through the paperwork you'll be sent about each school with a fine toothcomb. You need to be across the figures.
3. Study the Schools Admissions Code which you can find online. This governs the whole process and if you can quote sections that seem to support your case this is likely to impress panellists.
4. Don't get emotional. Stick to well thought out points. Telling the panel that your children should get special treatment because they are super-bright or getting angry is unlikely to help your cause.
5. Be realistic. There is very little chance of success if the classes in your child's year are already at 30. In reception as well as years one and two, class size legislation means the schools are forbidden from taking any more children than this apart from in exceptional circumstances.
However, each school has its own published admission number, which may be less than 30 if, for instance the classrooms are small. If it is less than 30 you have more chance of making a persuasive case for them to exceed that number without breaking regulations.
6. Start planning what you are going to do if you lose. If you still want to take the matter further it is possible, in certain circumstances, to complain to the government Ombudsman.
7. Don't forget to be put on the school's waiting list. New places can come up at any time and it's often the child that lives closest that gets highest up the list.
Appeals may be hard to win, but not impossible. I'll never forget my son's beaming smile as he came out of class on his first day in his new school – and I knew instantly that the stress and effort had all been worthwhile.
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