School catchment shake-up fears

PARENTS could find it harder to send their children to their nearest school as catchment area guarantees look set to be scrapped in Suffolk, it has emerged.

PARENTS could find it harder to send their children to their nearest school as catchment area guarantees look set to be scrapped in Suffolk, it has emerged.

Because of changes in Government guidance on school admissions, Suffolk County Council is now planning to withdraw promised places for children living closest to schools and has written to all headteachers to ask for their views.

The letter, seen by the East Anglian Daily Times, describes the proposal as “substantive change”, mainly affecting popular schools where the applications from their catchment area exceed the number of places available.

Last night, the Suffolk branch of the teachers' union NASUWT claimed it would make the system fairer by stopping parents “buying their way” into schools by purchasing properties in their catchment areas.

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But the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said the emphasis on parent choice could “perpetuate inequality”.

In the new system, parents would put down their top three preferences of school as they do currently, but the council would not be able to promise a place at their nearest school.

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All three schools on a parent's list will be treated equally, a rule designed by the Government to stop a school giving priority to pupils whose parents put it as their first choice.

But if there are two schools that can offer a place, the one ranked highest by the parent will be chosen.

The council last night confirmed it would be “highly unlikely” there would be no places available at any of the three preferred schools, partly because of falling rolls in Suffolk.

In the letter to headteachers, Ian Brown, head of infrastructure for children and young people's services, says: “We anticipate that a small number of schools will be affected by this change, namely where the number of catchment area applications exceeds the places available.

“In those cases, some parents living in the catchment area may be refused places.”

He adds: “We acknowledge that the removal of the catchment area guarantee may mean that parents in some cases will have some difficult decisions to make about the ranked order of their preferences, specifically how they should rank their catchment area school.”

The Government is giving the council money for staff who can give independent advice on which schools parents should pick.

It brought in the changes to the admissions code in a bid to give all children a “fair and equal chance” of taking up a place at their preferred school and to put an end to “covert selection”.

Keith Anderson, Suffolk county secretary for the NASUWT, said last night: “In a lot of respects the new code does seem to be fairer as it does seem to give the opportunity for students from different backgrounds to have access to schools whereas, at the present time, parents buy their way into school catchment areas as they have the money to do so. Hopefully it will alleviate those problems.”

But Martin Goold, county secretary for Suffolk's NUT said: “The Government professes to want to get a better social mix in 'good' schools, but parental choice works against that, concentrating middle class children in schools perceived to be 'the best' and leaving the other schools struggling to provide a good education to children of less advantaged backgrounds.

“Now the child who lives in the catchment area of a 'good' school will not even be guaranteed a place in that school. Parental choice, often based on the league tables, simply perpetuates inequality.”

Suffolk's plans emerged as Brighton hit the headlines for saying it will allocate places at oversubscribed secondary schools by lottery, sparking protests from parents.

Last night a spokesperson for Suffolk County Council confirmed it was not considering a lottery system and added parents would still be able to apply for a place at any school in Suffolk or outside.

But Geoff Barton, headteacher at the oversubscribed King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, said he thought the best means of place allocation was set criteria.

He added: "We are going to be oversubscribed again. We have 340 places but there will be far more parents than that trying to get their children into this school.

“Our allocation system gives first preference to looked after children in the area, second to those with siblings already at the school and third is based on distance to travel. One of the things I like about this system is that we have a variety of children here.”

The consultation period on the council's proposals ends today . They will then go to Cabinet on April 3 and must be determined by April 15 for the school year starting September 1, 2008.

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