Let’s start a revolution in our school system

Ellen's son is due to start school in September

Ellen's son is due to start school in September - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

Last week parents of small children across the country were rushing to get their applications in to meet the deadline for primary school places.

We were among them.

Our son, who will be four in March, is set to start reception class in September.

Thanks to the sibling rule – which means priority goes to the younger brothers and sisters of children already in full time education – he should get a place at the same school as our six-year-old daughter.

But I have friends applying for their first-born this year who cannot play this particular card.

And, quite understandably, they are incensed that they might not get a look-in at their school of choice simply because families like mine get precedence.

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So is the current admissions system fair?

Well, of course the 85% of parents nationwide who get their first choice school will say yes.

The 10% who get one of their top three choices will be less convinced.

And the 5% who get allocated a school they did not choose at all will give it a resounding thumbs down.

So the issue of giving siblings first dibs really is an absolute minefield of a debate.

From my point of view, it would be a practical, emotional and, possibly, financial drain to get two children to two different schools to start bang on 9am and pick them up again at 3.15pm.

But, looking at it from the other side, I can also see how unfair it is that some children, squeezed out of classes with lots of siblings, are put at a disadvantage even if they live a stone’s throw from the school gate.

It is for this very reason that the Office of the Schools Adjudicator recently suggested we scrap the sibling rule entirely.

The regulator, who raised the issue after a raft of complaints, said that by changing the list of criteria, it could reduce the burden on over-subscribed schools because distance from the school would be considered more important than family links.

But there is a major problem with this and it is that however you carve up the pie, there simply aren’t enough places at good schools to go around.

Inevitably someone loses out.

And really why should parents be forced to send their kids to poorly performing schools simply because they are the closest to the front door?

Our nearest school, the one we fall into the catchment area for and which the local education authority would like us to have picked, was deemed “unsatisfactory” when we last looked round.

In fact, in the last few months the LEA has said it still requires improvement and cited poor quality of teaching, inconsistent marking and a poor level of English and Maths as reasons why it is failing.

Come on. Surely I can be forgiven for looking elsewhere?

Now, I have made it clear in previous columns that I take Ofsted reports with a pinch of salt.

Indeed, when we first moved to Suffolk from London two years ago, I ended up picking a “satisfactory” school for our daughter instead of the “outstanding” one which also had a place available.

I did this because, after visiting both, I realised there was more to an educational establishment than its academic achievements.

But, having said that, I would be a fool not to have some faith in the opinion of inspectors and there is apparently a very big difference between a school which is satisfactorily meeting targets and one that isn’t.

Why on Earth would any parent not want to give their kids the best possible start in life by choosing the very best school?

Now of course schools need to allocate places in a fair and open way.

And it is quite possible that the current system needs fine tuning.

But if you ask me, the scrabble for primary school places only exists because there are too many children and not enough places at decent schools to go round. It’s a dual issue of quality and quantity.

It has got nothing to do with sibling priority, precedence for locality or size of classroom.

Of course the ideal solution is the provision of lots of good school places but so far, successive governments have not addressed the issue of greatly increased birth rates and ensured schools provide for them.

While this continues to be the case the reality is that, as long as some schools are perceived as better and have more applicants than places, children will be let down.

I honestly believe the rules of admission are not really at the heart of the problem here.

What we actually need is a complete overhaul of the education system so that there is uniformity in the standard of teaching our young people receive. That way they all get the best schooling possible.

I would like to see teachers taking a lead in making this happen.

After all, their job is a vital one. Our children’s future is in their hands.

So perhaps instead of constantly throwing obstacles and criticism their way, we would be better off supporting them in finding a path forward.

A revolution of this nature could be what’s needed to shake off the hierarchical process of allocating places and instead open the doors to a better education for all.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.