Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

Posts Tagged ‘education

Email chaos for families waiting for school admissions news

with 3 comments

The date of March 1 was hovering over tens of thousands of families for months: it was National Offers Day, the day we would, at last, find out the future of our children’s secondary education.

After months of uncertainty – compounded by the problems many parents in Walsall experienced when the Schools Adjudicator changed the admissions criteria for one secondary school one week before the preference form deadline – we were ready for the outcome.

Serco, the organisation that runs education services in Walsall, had set up an email notification system for those parents who wanted to know as early as possible which secondary school their child would be attending.

There would, we were assured, an email dropping into the inbox at approximately 00.01 on Monday, March 1.

It beat waiting another day for the news, so I duly signed up.

Many parents kept themselves awake and sat at their computer at midnight, nervously waiting to open their email accounts. (I didn’t; I fell  asleep, despite efforts to stay awake.)

It was 00.01. Nothing. They waited and refreshed the incoming mail box. Nothing. 00.10; 00.15; 00.25; 00.45; 01.00. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

After a fitful night, I eventually reached for the laptop at 5am. Nothing? This can’t be right. There was a slight wave of panic: did I fill in the form correctly? Did I ask for email notification? I checked my print out. Yes, everything was in order.

So where was it? It was not until 7.30am that friends began to text each other. No one had received the promised email.

The children started to worry; we became anxious. It had worked last year, why not this?

It seems Walsall was not the only place to experience technical hitches.

In Northamptonshire, more than 5,000 parents hoping to be able to log onto the education website run by Capita on Monday morning found it had crashed and were unable to get the news they were after.

In Nottingham there were similar technical problems, which left parents chewing their nails until 3pm when the hitch was sorted out and emails were eventually sent.

Thousands of anxious parents in London and Surrey were left without the news they had been waiting for after Pan London Admission Systems, a website for the 33 London boroughs and Surrey, also suffered problems.

In the grand scale of things, these types of hitches might be considered small fry – and anyone who has not gone through the process might well scoff at parents over-reacting.

Believe me: once you are embroiled in the whole procedure, any delay is unbearable.

Perhaps a better way should be introduced. Instead of the piecemeal, drip-drip leak of information of who has a place where, perhaps letters should be sent to primary schools who should then distribute them to parents and carers on a single day at a given time.

I suspect there will never be an entirely fool-proof system, but this year has proven that technology isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Serco has yet to comment about its technology failure.

Written by CommonPeople

March 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Shame on Serco and the Schools’ Adjudicator

with 6 comments

This time last week, everything was clear in my mind.

As the parent of a Year 6 pupil, I had weighed up the pros and cons of each available secondary school; done the research; deconstructed the “lies, damn lies and statistics” over GCSE results etc; spent a total of ten hours walking around the establishments.

As a family, we’d discussed what would be good for our daughter. Our daughter said what her preferred options were. There were negotiations, UN-style.

But, with a week to go before the secondary preference forms (note the word “preference”. There is no parental “choice”), Serco, the organisation that runs education services in Walsall dropped a bombshell.

Thousands of us – all parents of Year 6 children in Walsall  – received a letter last Saturday to tell us that a rather important change had been made to one school’s admission policy.

One week before our forms have to be handed in.

Thanks to the Schools Adjudicator, the admission criteria for one secondary school – Shire Oak School – had been changed with immediate effect.

The adjudicator, Dr Elizabeth Passmore, agreed with objectors from a nearby primary school in neighbouring Staffordshire that the Shire Oak’s primary partner status did not pass muster.

Under the partnership, Shire Oak works with ten primary schools in the borough, helping with maths and science projects, getting youngsters from year 5 and up engaged in the subjects.

It is a partnership – not a feeder arrangement. While there were never any guarantees that those children from the partner schools would gain a place there, they did have an advantage because primary partner school was part of the admissions criteria.  It was criterion four – above the distance criterion that most schools impose.

But Dr Passmore – for a myriad reasons – made a determination that the criterion must not stand and must be removed this year. The decision advantages approximately 20 children at the school that appealed against the decision to the detriment of the 400+ children in the partnership.

It means for those of us who were including the school as one of the five preferences, we are now significantly disadvantaged. I – and many of my friends – do live outside of the catchment area (children on average live 2.132 miles from the school, as the crow flies).

The removal of this criterion now means we have much less chance of getting our children to this school.

Serco disagrees.

“No allocations have been made and no pupils will be disadvantaged by the decision taken by the Schools Adjudicator. The adjudicator’s decision is final and relates to the admission arrangements for Shire Oak College only, the admission arrangements for other Walsall schools are unaffected and remain unchanged,” said a spokesman.

Everyone disagrees with the fact that pupils will not be disadvantaged – the headteacher of Shire Oak, the headteachers of the primary schools affected, the parents and the local councillors all believe that there are significant numbers of children whose chances have been depleted because of the determination.

If the decision were not bad enough, parents have had to deal with Serco about this. At no point did the organisation, which won a 12-year contract to run education services in Walsall, think it a good idea to tell parents about the appeal that was lodged in July.

This was done, said Avril Walton, assistant managing director, because they did not want to “confuse” and “upset” parents unnecessarily.

Most of the time, the Schools Adjudicator determines no change when an appeal is lodged, she said. If we had been concerned about this, we might not have handed in our preference forms in on time.

This attitude has been cricitised severely by parents – including me – who have accused Serco of having treated them with contempt over the issue.

Even the adjudicator seems to have assumed that those affected by the outcome would have been informed.

Serco stands accused of distancing itself from this decision, which can only be overturned by judicial review or going to the Ombudsman, and failing to understand how parents might feel.

Its cavalier attitude towards the parents has deeply concerned many of us and has compounded the decision made by the adjudicator.

While the adjudicator has wrecked the chances of our children getting places at this school, the company running the education in the borough of Walsall has stood by without thinking of the consequences.

Shame on both of them.

Written by CommonPeople

October 24, 2009 at 8:45 am

A steep learning curve

with 5 comments


There have been two very interesting stories this week about young children in education. And although not related, have raised some questions about how five-year-olds in England should be schooled.

The first, seemingly depressing article, described how disruptive infant pupils were being “labelled” as “naughty” and installed into a vocational centre.

The other was a call from Cambridge Primary Review, which called for a move from formal education for those under six to play-centred curriculum.

So – in the first article, we learn that children as young as five (perhaps unfairly labelled in the piece as “drop-outs”) are being taken to specialist centres so that they can address their challenging behaviour.

The danger, as far I can see, is that taking a child away from its peers and separating them already labels them as different. Children know this, of course, and their being labelled as “naughty” might well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Off_To_School_6172In the second, Dame Gillian Pugh warns that four- and five-year-olds are switching off from the learning process because the curriculum because it is too formal, particularly for those less able youngsters.

So, do you see the connection here?

Of course, the answer is not cut and dried. Education is never simple and there are wildly differing opinions as to the value of play in the curriculum.

There are educators who are passionate about allowing children the freedom to play – getting them to learn by stealth – while many are diametrically opposed to this approach, claiming it lacks a constructive element that youngsters need and is “uneducational”.

Parents are equally bemused by the options: while there is an understanding that play is central to a young child’s life – and that they can learn to count by using bricks and form letters by drawing in sand – they are equally demanding academic success.

It is important that our five-year-olds know the alphabet, can count to 20 and can have a good stab at writing their own name. Or is it?

We have become a target-driven society – there are prescribed academic standards for the smallest of children. The National Curriculum has imposed early learning goals that should be attained by the time they finish Foundation Stage (aged six).

There are six areas of development: PSE (personal, social and emotional) development; communication, language and literacy; problem solving, reasoning and numeracy; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and creative development.

Many of these goals are achieved through play-based learning. You can read all about the curriculum here.

In many European countries – including Wales – formal education isn’t introduced until a child is six or seven, yet their academic attainment is higher.

And therein lies the rub – for me at least: a balance of child-initiated play and adult-initiated play must be a good thing if it raises standards and youngsters are able to achieve basic academic skills that form the foundation stone of their learning.

Surely one doesn’t cancel out the other? I don’t want to see youngsters being taken out of schools, away from their friends, labelled as “different” at five. I want to see them supported – which means resources must be appropriate and available – and I want to see them achieve.

If that means offering them more play-based learning, so they can become more engaged and settled, so be it.

(I am not an educationalist; I am a mother of two primary school children and parent governor. Just so you know).

Written by CommonPeople

October 16, 2009 at 3:31 am

Secondary school “choices” – Hobson’s Choice, more like

with 6 comments

When I first became a mum, I knew the small print said something about “always worrying” about your offspring.
I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t worry about things – especially if things are out of my control – but I’m not terribly good at taking my own advice.

I worried about which nursery my children should go to; I tossed and turned at night when I sent off the application forms for primary school.

Six years on from the infant school concern, I am now vexed with another BIG WORRY: it is selection time for secondary school.

Now, the authority area in which I live is not exactly blessed with schools that are knocking on The Times Top 100 league table’s door for entry.

There are some schools – as there are in every authority – that I would only allow my daughter to attend “over my dead body”.

There is a grammar school, for which an entrance exam has to be taken. This is fine. It is a gamble because there are more than 800 children sitting the exam for 96 places.

Our nearest school is an Academy, which has a good reputation. Children must sit an exam, but the selection procedure – something to do with banding, catchments, non-catchments and the alignment of Pisces with Jupiter – is so complicated that no-one actually understands it (including the local authority).

My daughter’s primary school is a feeder school for a secondary that also has a fairly good reputation. This pleased me and my friends greatly when we discovered this new relationship – at least we had a chance of getting our children into a half-decent school.

Not so.

For, we learned, there are ten primary schools in the “feeder umbrella” and ours is the furthest away of all of them. If every Year 6 child from those feeder schools applied, there wouldn’t be enough places to accommodate them all. Once distance is taken into consideration, 90 per cent of us at our primary school would be out of the running.

Five schools have to be chosen and they must be put in order of preference. There are not five schools in my borough that I could, hand on heart, say I would be happy to let my child attend.

The grammar, which she says she would like to try for, must come first on the list. But if there is no place available, we have our “fall-back” Academy. But – even if she meets the criteria – putting that school second jeopardises our chances of a place because most of the places are taken up by those who have placed it first on their preference form.

The alleged feeder school has already said that if you put it below second you have very little chance of getting in because it is over-subscribed.

The whole thing is overwhelming. It is frightening. I don’t like it.

The forms have to be submitted by October 23. We find out where she will go on March 1. That’s four months of no sleep. OK – that’s also in the small print…

Written by CommonPeople

September 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm