Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

Posts Tagged ‘Serco

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.

Advertisements

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