School allocations – an illusion of choice?

School sign

Image: PetarPaunchev, iStock

Thousands of families across Wales will shortly be learning which primary and secondary schools their children will be attending in September. For many, this will be their local catchment school, however for a sizeable minority, the outcome will not be what they wanted. Many will find themselves without a place for their child or have been allocated a place in a school that is not their first, second or possibly third choice.

Each year this creates huge anxiety, for parents and children. The first reaction will be disappointment, followed by anger. An admissions system established in 1988 by the UK Government that encourages parental choice has given the illusion that parents are in control of the process, when in fact the education system could never accommodate everyone’s preferences fully. This feeling of ‘losing control’ over your child’s education is often at the core of the distress and anger. And despite attempts by successive governments to modify the admissions process to encourage transparency and equity there will always be some families who feel they have ‘lost out’.

Starting a new primary school or moving to a new secondary school is a major upheaval. Every child moving to a ‘big’ secondary school feels apprehensive about what lies ahead. But consider the child who will not be going to the same school as their friends or the child who will go in to their classroom tomorrow not knowing which secondary school they will be attending in September.

Don’t panic

The first piece of advice I would give is not to panic. Despite what parents think, children are aware of what is going on. Fuelling their anxiety by creating a stressful environment could worsen the situation. Equally, shutting the child out of the situation could be just as detrimental. Talk to them. Explain clearly but calmly what the outcome is and then reassure them.

This brings me on to my next piece of advice. Encouraging ‘parental choice’ is based on the idea that some schools are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others. Whilst it may be true to say that some schools are more suitable for your child than others, the notion of the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ school is largely a myth. Schools have far more in common with one another than you might expect from a system that often wants to rank or categorise schools. Based on pupil attainment alone, there is more variation within schools than there is between schools. And just because one school appears to have fewer pupils achieving certain qualifications or grades does not mean that the quality of the teaching or the pupil experience in that school is worse. This is where the Welsh Government’s National School Categorisation System can be useful, as it attempts to provide a measure of school quality, but even this has its flaws. There is plenty of evidence to show that differences in the quality of a school has  a relatively small influence on what grades a child will achieve – there are lots of contributing factors, and actually the role of the family can be just as important, if not more so.

If parents are still sceptical then I would encourage them to think about their own education and the influence that different teachers in their school had on them. It is likely that there were some teachers  who were influential on their learning whilst others are now forgotten. This picture is common across all schools, irrespective of how apparently ‘good’ or ‘poor’ they are based on measures of overall pupil attainment. Furthermore, such measures of school performance are calculated on the basis of the ‘average’ child in a school. But in reality there is no such thing as an ‘average’ child – each has their own strengths, weaknesses, interests and needs. And no one, not even professors of education, can truly be confident that their first school preference is the most appropriate school for their child.

What next?

Given the importance of education in a person’s life, it is not surprising that many families still feel compelled to try to minimise the ‘risks’ and ensure  they maximise the benefits of an education for their children. Which is why many parents who feel they have been unsuccessful in their admissions applications will still want to do something about it. The main consideration for disappointed families will be whether to appeal the outcome. Disappointed families have nothing to lose by appealing, however, each year only a small proportion of appeals are upheld. Consequently, parents should think carefully whether they should appeal. They need to fully understand why their preferred option(s) was not successful. Local authorities are required to stipulate on what grounds applications were unsuccessful, usually using the admissions criteria that are published in their admissions handbooks or on their websites. Going through the appeals process could further exacerbate the anxiety and uncertainty that a family already feels. It may also delay and subsequently shorten the time available to help prepare a child with the transition to a new school. Therefore having a detailed understanding of the circumstances is critical. If parents do decide to appeal then they should consider expert advice, such as that provided by the Coram Children’s Legal Centre: www.childrenslegalcentre.com

Local authorities are limited in what they can do. School intakes are largely ‘inelastic’ – that is, they cannot be expanded or reduced depending on demand. Another major limitation is that schools are largely organised by classes or forms. For example, fifteen additional pupils will require an additional teacher, however the funding made available is not enough for a school to employ that additional teacher. This is why parents are allowed to make a “preference” and not a “choice”. However, for parents it feels as if they are being encouraged to make a choice. There is also uncertainty for local authorities in the weeks following the initial allocation of school places, because a lot can still change. For example, there are some schools for whom the local authority does not organise their admissions (such as faith schools and Foundation schools). Not only are local authorities uncertain as to how many vacancies there may be in these schools they cannot even be certain that some pupils they have allocated to their (Community) schools are also holding places in other schools. Until these are confirmed local authorities cannot categorically say whether there are places available or not in their own schools. Instead they may establish waiting lists for some schools. To further complicate matters, this waiting list is ‘fluid’ – as a child’s circumstances change or new evidence comes to light their ‘priority’ (according to the published admissions criteria) may change.

Parents who do not get their preference are likely to feel abandoned or unfairly let down by the education system. However, it is important to remember that everyone working in the system would prefer to let every parent (and child) get into their preferred school.

Sadly, there are many barriers that will be preventing them from doing this. Having a better awareness of these barriers and a more realistic view about the importance of school preferences may provide some assistance in dealing with an unsuccessful admissions application over the next few days and weeks.

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