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.
“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.