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