No room at the school

It was national offers day for primary school places on Thursday last week.

We’d looked at local schools and put six on the form, as advised, all within about a mile of where we live and all with great reputations. I’d prefer the first choice but we’d be happy with the others. I couldn’t understand the hysteria; people taking up religion and throwing themselves in to community bake sales, renting homes so they have an address within the school catchment. The palpable tension on Facebook and Twitter. Bryony Gordon from The Telegraph spoke with a family who were selling their family home to send their child to a £4k per term private school. It felt as if the world had gone mad – this is school! Everyone goes!

Then we got an email and it said

No offer possible

Unfortunately it is not possible to offer a place for your child at any of the schools you stated as a preference in your application.

Immediately I blamed Doug as he had submitted the forms. He must’ve got it wrong. I’d heard of one person that hadn’t got a place once, but all our neighbours kids go to the same school. Turns out the forms had all been submitted correctly.

I took the kids in to nursery the next morning and saw a gaggle of mums discussing school places and embarrassingly burst in to tears. Perhaps because it’s the first time in my son’s life where I can’t fix something, I can’t make the right choice for him. We should have known, we should have planned for this. A hard-working friend who also received no place wept ‘what am I doing it for, if I can’t even get my kid in to a school?’.

I think it was also because, like most families with small children, we’re bloody tired. I knew that this would be something that would take up time and energy. First of all in trying to sort it, and then what – potentially trekking to another area and spending an hour at each end of the day doing the school and nursery run?

We’re not talking about walking six miles for fresh water, and I know people going through far greater heartache and difficult times. But is it now a thing in the UK that there aren’t enough school places for children to go to a local school?

After that first 24 hours I stopped crying and now I feel angry and disillusioned. Because it turns out it is.

All over the country there are ‘black holes’, which aren’t covered by a local school and it’s particularly a problem in and around London. Oh the irony that London residents pay the highest tax, rent and house prices. While the rest of the country (with my Dad at the forefront) have thought ‘why would you pay so much to live there when you could have a house with a DRIVE if you moved away?’, we’ve thought ‘we love it here, the commute is good and we have great schools’. One could start to feel like a mug…

There are 114 kids with no offer in Richmond Borough alone. After siblings and any special requirements on religious or medical grounds, it comes down to distance. This year the current cut off for our closest school is 399m. We’re 700m away and new housing developments are going on all around the Borough, which will make the problem worse. In previous years a temporary measure has been to add ‘bulge’ classes (no sniggering at the back). Schools are reluctant to add these as obviously it has resource repercussions on them. If I were a headteacher, a bit of me would be thinking ‘why should we all work harder to accommodate a local Council and Government failing’.

I suppose one of the issues is that this only matters for a short period for a minority of people so there isn’t a constant noise, or even uproar, about something that is so fundamental. Maybe there is, but I haven’t heard it. The majority (80-90%) in many parts of the country get their first choice, so most probably aren’t worried about lack of school places. Once you’re in the school system, you’re busy adjusting to the new routine and, for those that didn’t get their preference, perhaps making the best of it in true British fashion.

After my initial emotional response – sobbing at being unable to start the build up to ‘big school’ and that over-sized uniform – it’s got me thinking about politics. If nothing else this debacle has reminded me that it matters.

I couldn’t tell you what the policies are for each of the political parties with regard to schools locally or nationally, even with all the election noise. I sure as shit want to find out now. I’m being told repeatedly that the waiting lists move (although at last check we’re 69th on the list for our local school), and legally we have to be offered a place somewhere when Buster is five. I’ve heard from parents who found out the day before term started in previous years. All the political parties bang on about education, as well as obesity and community and transport – well we don’t have enough local school places and are likely to end up with one that requires sitting in a car on busy roads for an hour travelling for a school outside of our local area.

I still think the hysteria is unnecessary – the steps people are taking to ‘ensure’ a place, even extra hours being worked to send a child to private school when it isn’t something your family can really afford, but it feels like the only option. People taking on additional pressures which excuse the authorities from reaching a solution. What if that energy and time was spent demanding a solution? According to the BBC this is a crisis ‘precipitated mainly by a booming birth-rate’ – surely the authorities know how many children live in an area and can plan for that number? There are fears about how this crisis will materialise as these classes reach secondary school age and there is even less provision, so it may well affect people that think they’re safe currently.

The BBC article shows Labour and the Coalition Government blaming each other. I want to know what’s going to be done about it and what, if anything, we can do about it.

images: blairblogs.com, crayoncrisis.com

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58 thoughts on “No room at the school

  1. Lesley says:

    I am so concerned about this issue for our application next year too- it’s a serious concern, and honestly something that has not even entered my consciousness until now when I realised a few months ago the potential issues with catchments! What happened? I do hope all was ok for you! X

  2. Lizzie Woodman says:

    How terrible, I really feel for you. The problem is not just in London – where I live in Ely, Cambs, the school places issue feels like a ticking time bomb. I was lucky enough to get both my boys into our catchment school (which has a 120 intake, the largest in the city), but I know others who have been disappointed. A new school has had to be opened in temporary buildings and it its already filling up – before the new homes it is supposed to service have even been built! I think more should be done to expand existing schools (our school has the largest intake (120) but the other 3 only take 60) – even if this has to mean mobiles in the playground. I hope you get some good news soon!

    • Steph says:

      I think you might be right – I’m being told that the issue is lack of land available for new schools, so surely that means expand the existing ones rather than put schools in areas that don’t need them and that mean more traffic on the roads as parents have to drive there!

  3. Nia says:

    I find myself in the same boat and am puzzling where to take my son in September when all his friends are starting at the local
    school..
    I’m hoping Vince Cable, my MP can tell me! No answer from him as yet. Possibly he has bigger things on his mind. Unfortunately I don’t..

    • Steph says:

      Hi Nia – thanks for reading. Whereabouts do you live? We’ve a group set up for St Margarets and East Twickenham parents in same boat…

      • Nia says:

        I am in central Twickenham. Grove Ave..not too far from Twickenham Green. But obviously far enough as that is where the school we missed out on is!

        • Steph says:

          Hi Mischa – yep, we’ve had that. I think they’re mopping up anyone without a place with the free schools (both in opposite directions and a nightmare to get to for us). The whole system is a bit bonkers when you visit schools and write preferences and most people get a school that way but some of us get one that is brand new, we know nothing about and isn’t local. Good luck! Hope it gets sorted for you

  4. Gaby says:

    Stephie – I’d written a comment last night but for some reason it didn’t post – and having seen the subsequent comments since then, I have to say it makes for slightly depressing reading in that the system is so clearly mucked up.
    Firsty, and obviously – it’s utterly, utterly unacceptable that Buster hasn’t got a place ANYWHERE. I don’t even know where to start with that, let alone whether it’s even legal?? How ‘they’ think it’s acceptable to have to make you wait until others have accepted/declined is totally beyond me and beggars belief that that’s even a thing?? Where is the CHOICE in any of this?? I don’t understand how anyone can be denied the choice to give their kids the schooling they want/choose/demand – it should be such a fundamental, basic standard. I have another year or so before I need to think about schooling for my son, and have to say I was pretty ignorant to all the goings-on….so after your experience and all the other stories, I have the fear already – and that’s sh*t. So I hope this message gets to at least some people it needs to – and DAMN RIGHT my vote on the 7th May is going to be hugely dictated by OUR BLOODY RIGHT TO GET OUR KIDS INTO SCHOOL. Roar, Stephie xx

  5. Val and Jim says:

    I’m afraid Irene you are absolutely correct. Many of us have been aware of this for a long time and writing to MPs and joining with groups to try to resist this but it is a government (Gove) initiative which most people seem to want. I dislike the free schools. I feel they are divisive on religious and other grounds and they are not for anyone who wants to go there. They employ unqualified teachers and one third are performing badly – They exclude 80% of the rest of the children who are not of the correct religion or none or on other grounds. LAs now have very little money to be spent on state schools and we are all being divided up into small self interested groups. We are left to fight as inidividuals or small groups like the one you mentioned. Join with that group Steph and fight to get education free, available to all in your area. Everyone should be in that group except that of course most parents will have received a place for their child and so it goes on. Beneath the hoo haa of the election try to find out what each parties views/plans are for education and vote for the one which encompasses your views – or at least gets near! This education system we now have will not now be reversed, in fact one party is committed to expanding the free schools programme.

  6. Irene says:

    Unfortunately it’s been happening for a few years now, and East Twickenham is a known ‘black hole.’ Have you heard about the Richmond Inclusive Schools campaign? It started in 2010 when the council gave the Adult College building near Twickenham station to serve as a Catholic secondary school. It was already clear then that there was a shortage of places in Richmond to serve all local children, let alone faith based groups. The issue is not so much shortage of schools but it is the shortage of sites and space to expand. LA cannot start new schools now and are reliant on academies and other proposer groups (free schools are a type of free schools). However these groups cannot find space for their schools – and in some cases they just aren’t suitable groups to start a school. Giving away public assets to a minority few does not help especially when there are so few available in a high value, built up area like Richmond. I also suspect the council is reliant on children going to independent schools, but that’s another story.

    • Steph says:

      Thanks for commenting Irene – a neighbour had problems in 2004 so it’s been going on a while! I knew East Twick was a ‘black hole’ – we’re in St Margarets (near All Souls church) and people from as close as Netherton Road haven’t got in, so this area is also now a problem. Lots of little pockets of people objecting, but it needs joining up – I’ll have a look at Richmond Inclusive Schools campaign, thank you .

  7. Sarah says:

    This is a beautifully written piece and I would love to run it on our website/fb page as it would resonate with many of our readers. Would you be able to email me if interested? Sarah

  8. Lucy says:

    Hello – thank you for writing this piece – it was really carefully done and these personal/political things aren’t easy to express.
    I wanted to say two things. One is that I get it as this happened to us ten years ago with our oldest daughter (now 14 – I’m
    ancient!). We were 200m from a school (in Hackney) with a 196m catchment. A lot of the problem was a one-form intake and an unusually high number of siblings, but part of it was fellow parents faking divorces, buying flats nearer the school etc (they then rented them to fellow parents in subsequent years and finally sold them at a huge profit, thus having their cake and eating it several times over). Unfortunately I’m the type to get furious but not actually join them – bad combination. We appealed, which is generally a bit pointless unless again you’re prepared to hire a lawyer and make up things, and I felt that awful feeling you describe of not being able to make everything right for my child for the first time.
    For what it’s worth, we then took a breath, had several drinks and sort of surfaced, and then went to visit a very un-full and not particularly popular school in Tower Hamlets which was not deemed desirable and where the teachers were not called by first names etc, but was hard-working, had some fantastic teachers and turned out really well. I know times have changed and at least we could walk to the alternative, but I really hope you can take some comfort that things you maybe just haven’t had time to consider can work out brilliantly in the end.
    Secondly, on the political point, if you pursue campaigning on this, I think part
    of the problem stems from the lies developers tell about the number of kids
    likely to live in newly-built homes. They have to tell local authorities this, but if the number is high they have to contribute towards school infrastructure, so there’s a huge incentive to under-estimate (they use a ludicrously distorting formula). Authorities then come up with a so-called
    pupil yield figure which in turn under-estimates the number of places they have to provide, and by the time the truth and shortfall emerges the developers are nowhere to be seen. So policy-wise, I’d say one big issue is developer honesty and how to enforce it.
    I wish you all the luck and energy you need to sort out your school issue now – a solution will emerge, but you shouldn’t have to feel like this. Hang on in there!

  9. Jessica Mc says:

    So so true. It should be a massive election issue but not enough people understand the ramifications of the issue.
    Michael Gove withdrew local authorities powers to open new schools in an attempt to drive forward the free school programme.
    Problem being if no one fancies opening one where you live, what do you do? Also do parents want to take the risk of sending their children to schools set up by well-meaning amateurs? What if it’s a religious free school and you don’t want to send your child to a religious school? Or worse still what if the board and governors of the free school are done for embezzlement as they are not actually answerable to anyone except an overworked civil servant in Whitehall.

    Diatribe over!!

    I’m not saying get rid of free schools, some are brilliant. I’m saying:

    ALLOW LOCAL AUTHORITIES THE POWER TO OPEN SCHOOLS WHEN THE NEED IS GREAT!!

    History will judge you harshly Michael Gove…

    • Steph says:

      I love a diatribe! Thank you, I now can’t believe it’s not a massive election issue, or at least a reasonably sized one – I had no idea until we were ‘in’ it so I imagine that’s how most people are – oblivious, There are a couple of new schools for September in the Borough, but they’re in completely the wrong areas. Beyond ridiculous.

  10. Margaret Walz says:

    I do not know what the law states in the UK in regards to schooling your children . Here in in the states thousands of parents are opting to home school their children. Parents want to know their children are being taught the truth in regards to history and other subjects that are being twisted by the ultra liberal mindset of our education system. We also have the option of schooling online, with the child staying at home and being able to follow the public school curriculum. My children have their families attending public, private and homeschooling. Fortunately the public school children ,except for one family , are all living in small towns, where the parents are a little more in touch with what is going on inside the walls of their children’s school.

    • Steph says:

      Blimey – that’s pretty extreme, and a bit terrifying! The frustrating thing here is that the schools are mostly great, especially in our area, it’s just there aren’t enough of them. Thanks for your comment Margaret

  11. Sally says:

    We’re in the same situation. According to rtt there are 28 of us in the same position is st m’s and east Twickenham.

    I am starting to gather an informal group of parents in the same position – (I’m not sure what we’ll achieve but at least we’ll be in it together!)

    Drop an email to easttwick2015@yahoo.com to get at the distribution. I know it’s an east Twickenham address but we are just next door and all looking to the same schools .

    Otherwise – good luck!!!!

    Sally

    • Steph says:

      Thank you Sally – sorry that you’re in this mess too. I have a group from St Margarets without places so I’ll send you the emails I know and give the others this address ? Totally with you – if we act as a group there might be a hope, if not we’ll all get picked off and slotted somewhere outside our area where there is a space.

      Will be in touch!
      Steph

  12. Jess Helicopter says:

    Oh love! I can’t actually believe this can happen?! I mean, just how ridiculously inept!?! I’m so sorry. It’s so true…. Before you enter the school places battleground yourself you have no IDEA how stressful it is. It’s almost an abstract concept. But when you’re in the thick of it, flipping heck it’s emotional. We weren’t quite in position of no place, a place at school with not after school care and various other problems. Spent months preparing to go to a hearing to plead my case. Was almost sick daily with the stress. Really hope you find a place somewhere that isn’t horrendous. Xxx

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Jess – I had no idea! Trying to stay rational as we’re taking any steps we can, and the last step would be to move. I’m not paying crazy money to live somewhere and the kids go to school somewhere else. It just stops making any sense.

  13. Becky Cowley says:

    Oh Steph! What a bloody nightmare! We have an outstanding High school by us, it has quite a reputation people actually buy houses in the area to get their children into the school! I couldn’t quite believe it when I first heard!
    I don’t understand the criteria that gives one child a place at one of the six schools but others not. I get each schools criteria but for the local authority not to offer him any place I really find bizarre!
    I really hope that the get something sorted for him, and quickly xx

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Becky, it mostly does come down to wear you live – and it has to be extremely close to the school in some areas! We’ll get there… x

  14. Notmyyearoff says:

    Omg I didn’t even know that was a possibility. I hope you manage to get it sorted, it sounds horrendous. I would be distraught too. Sending lots of love and good vibes xx

  15. Andree Frieze says:

    Dear Steph
    I’m not surprised you’re distraught about this I would be too. I’m the Green party candidate for Richmond Park and also helping residents to try and get the Dept for Ed find a better site for a school in Richmond than next to a polluted and dangerous dual carriageway. Could we meet to discuss your problem. My email is Andree.frieze@greenparty.org.uk.
    Regards,
    Andree

    • Steph says:

      Hi Andree – that would be great (and you’re the first/only local candidate to offer). I’ll email you. Many thanks
      Steph

  16. Vicki-Honest Mum says:

    Just unbelievable, we lived in Barnes in the Richmond Borough for years before moving back to my hometown of Leeds in Yorkshire so I could have been in your shoes last year. I am so sorry reading this, I welled up in fact and hope he does get in and you get some answers soon. You’re right, making a vote is crucial, now more than ever xx

  17. Val and Jim says:

    The trouble is that people only have a passing interest in politics when they are personally affected. I do hope Buster gets an offer very soon. As you say he has a right to an education. Your local district council are the ones responsible for this situation. Busy parents like you and Doug just don’t have time to organise others in same situation and lobby the appropriate councillors I know, and you will only be in this situation for a couple of months I hope. This is how the council gets away with this sort of behaviour. It is all to do with money I am afraid. They could push developers to contribute towards provision for children but they don’t. They have actually closed two schools in our area and are building housing developments on greenfield sites. Suggest you contact your local councillor. What ward do you live in? When you find hid/her/their names phone/email/write and get others to do so as well. Long term you need to know what the different parties are going to do about this as well.

    • Steph says:

      You’re so right Val (and Jim) – I already feel a bit beaten up by it and it’s only been a week. I can see why people accept a place out the way and bust a gut making their own arrangements for pick ups etc when they shouldn’t have to. You’re just grateful for a place! Writing to our councillors and MPs now – so far noone has been very forthcoming about any plans…which may say a lot. Thanks for your support.

  18. Jude says:

    Wow, that is seriously not on! I feel positively selfish for walking out on our school now. Poor you guys. But you’re right, something needs to be done. We didn’t get a place in the primary school on our road (about 100 metres away) because a bulge year two years ago and a reduced provision this year meant they couldn’t even accommodate all the siblings, let alone people living nearby. Ridiculous! So bulge years are not the answer. They muck things up for families for years to come if they have more than one child. Hope you find an answer soon. Thinking of you guys xxxx

    • Steph says:

      Definitely – it’s a temporary measure our area has had to use for the last few years, which you’d think would indicate a new school is necessary? You’d think…

  19. Suzanne says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘they know how many children there are, why can’t they plan?’….or words to that effect. The same thing is going on here at the moment, especially with secondary schools. There really is now excuse for that – you’ve had 11 years to factor in the baby boom! Why are all the time and resources going into more housing when children will not get the education they have a right to? Smacks of he who shouts the loudest gets the funding. So sorry you’re going through this Steph and you have every right to cry and stamp your feet. X

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Suzanne – the secondary school thing is really terrifying. It’s already bad here and clearly thee are more kids coming through the system… x

  20. Abby says:

    One of the things that has always made me so proud of being British (the other half of me South African) is that everyone is entitled to free education and healthcare. What I’m now realising is, as one of the small groups of no school offers, is that entitled and actually getting it are very different. My husband and I work bloody hard to afford a house in a nice neighbourhood close to a good local school – I say close because it is 500m from the school – but that is not enough. All political parties have jumped on the working family/mother bandwagon promising better tax credits, cheaper childcare – how about a school place close by so I don’t have to now worry about either extortionate private fees or an equally extortionate nanny who can ferry my children between their respective schools/nurseries in opposite directions?!? I say if you want mothers to stay in work look at the whole picture. And for gods sake get councils and schools actually talking and collaborating about how they can best educate their local children – beacause I’m entitled to it! #angrymother.

  21. Amy Ransom says:

    I was so sorry to hear about this Steph. It’s ridiculous. Obviously. What are they trying to do? Drive us completely insane because we have to home-school? Argghhh. Our school is taking a bulge year next year just to make up for the shortfall in places. But that doesn’t solve the problem on an ongoing basis, just for one year. As you say, something needs to be done. Fast. Keep me posted. You sound like you’re being sensible about it x

    • Steph says:

      Always sensible Amy, always… One of the issues with bulge classes is the repercussions a couple of years later with siblings as more kids = more siblings. And NO to home school. Just no for me.

  22. Sarah says:

    Steph – they will find a place for Buster. They HAVE to! It’s unbelievable there are that many in Richmond without a place, and I’m sure all sorts of bulge classes will spring up shortly, however unfair that is on the school. In the meantime I’m so sorry for all the stress you have to go through, taking the shine off a really special and exciting time. And I’m very sorry for what might be perceived as a very smug Facebook post in the evening of admissions day. But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Currently in a daily battle to access helpful and consistent care for Mikey through the NHS. I too was all like, ‘Oh well once we’re in the system we’ll be looked after and moved through the right channels.’ Urm, nope. And the amount of time and stress it adds to daily life barely seems worth it, so maybe we’ll just muddle along? I don’t do politics AT ALL. But this has got me thinking.

    • Steph says:

      I totally assumed the system would work for us! I hope you’re getting there but I think you have to be pushy. And afraid we can’t not ‘do’ politics now we’re all grown up – this schools thing has exposed how much it’s all linked, especially locally. The housing links to the schools links to the transport… good luck with sorting support from Mikey – and I’d never think you smug lovely girl!

  23. Emma T says:

    I think it’s insane that you can’t get to a local school – especially with 6 choices, all within a mile-ish. I know a couple round here who got 2/3rd choices, but they live in town and all of their choices were outside of town so not surprising.

    Just insane that there aren’t enough schools being built for families moving into areas. I can only see this issue increasing with the amount of building going on in/outside towns, because noone seems to be building schools, and there’s not going to be enough teachers to go in any schools anyway.

    I hope those waiting lists move up and you get a place at somewhere local – just horrible

  24. Chloe says:

    Ah no, so sorry to hear this. I grew up in Richmond borough, didn’t realise they were struggling so much with school oversubscription but I guess it makes sense. We are in Croydon borough, statistically projected to be the most oversubscribed london borough by 2016. But I think because we have the worst stats, there has been a big, early focus on ensuring a place for every child with new school being built (we’ve seen loads cropping up over the past few years). Whilst it seems the rest of London and areas just outside London that are equally oversubscribed are not prioritised as much (yet). I hate what this government has done to schools, really hate it with a passion, I am a political bore when it comes to this subject. Sorry you are have been left in limbo, it must be so stressful having this all unresolved. Crossing my fingers for you that a local place comes through for Buster.

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Chloe – it looks like it’s been going on for years, a neighbour had problems in 2004. Glad they’ve had some forward planning in your area. That seems to be the problem – no proper planning, everyone muddles through in the September and then the next year of admissions happens and everyone is in a panic.

  25. Katie says:

    Bloody hell Steph that’s terrible 🙁 I’m so sorry it must be stressful and upsetting for you.
    It’s actually a similar situation here, there are loads of black holes in Brighton and hove, luckily we live round the corner from our school but I know plenty of others who got into none of their choices and were offered a poor performing school miles away. And in the same way they have just build a big block of new houses/flats opposite our school which has a very small catchment!
    I do know many people ended up getting a place before the term started though so i will keep everything crossed for you. **passes triple gin and a bacon sarnie**

    • Steph says:

      That’s the infuriating thing – all the housing developments that mean MORE PEOPLE so MORE PEOPLE WILL NEED SCHOOLS. Wow – we must be v clever as some people in charge haven’t worked that out yet. I always knew you were smart.

  26. Katy stevens says:

    I don’t have any children to worry about school places for (yet!) but this is ridiculous!! Not a single place anywhere and they just send a message as if it is nothing big and not to be worried about. It should be law that you find out the place for your son on the same day as everyone else, even if it is further away. They shouldn’t be allowed to cause this much stress… I’m not even sure who the ‘they’ I am referring to is now!?

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Katy – I can understand they need to jig things around, but there are just not enough schools where we live (and in lots of other areas I’m finding out). Thanks for your message x

  27. WallyMummy says:

    Oh babes this sucks! I would be balling it too – how can that happen it seems mad?!? Xx I’m sure all will be absolutely fine in the end but must feel like a nightmare right now :(((( x *alcoholic hugs* xxx

  28. Catherine says:

    I am so cross on your behalf (and everyone else in your position). It shouldn’t be possible that a child ends up with no place at *any* local school. I would like to see Local Authorities being given back the power to open new schools where needed, and a less cynical approach to housebuilding: of course people need homes, but as they are built, the developers should be made to contribute to ensuring that enough local infrastructure is available to ensure that they ARE homes, not just overpriced shelters. I really do hope that it is resolved quickly for you and Buster x

    • Steph says:

      The more I look in to it, the more of a car crash it is between housing/LA coordination (ie total lack of). Two free schools will be in the Borough for Sept, but they’re in the wrong area. One is in a place that has 4 primary schools within 1km and the residents are angry as they don’t want it. I think the expectation is we (the people in the area without school) will travel to that area. Which makes NO sense. Urgh.