Comment: Making school access fair

The current system of school admissions is a mess which sees children forced into becoming juvenile commuters. The government needs to look again.

By Mark Lancaster MP

Being the ‘new kid’ at school is hard enough. Everyone else has moved up to secondary school together and the camaraderie is established. But joining a class, mid-term, means finding friends and finding your feet.

So it baffles me why we are making it even harder for these new starters, with our convoluted and often unfair school admissions system. The current process has led to these so-called in-year admissions sitting at home for weeks, even months, before starting in their new classes. And for many, when they do start, they are being sent to a school across the other side of the city.

Milton Keynes is not alone in suffering these problems. According to a Mail on Sunday investigation, in September, bureaucracy was barring up to 15,000 primary and secondary pupils from the classroom nationally. In fact, my colleagues pointed out how the problems are blighting their constituencies – from West Yorkshire to Cheltenham – during my adjournment debate on the subject on Monday.

Several factors have contributed to the delays and distances endured by many of my constituents. One of those is the fact that, since September, local authorities have been charged with co-ordinating all applications for foundation schools and academies for those applying outside the yearly round. While the government had recommended that places be allocated within five school days, parents in Milton Keynes have seen a reported six-week wait.

One school, the Radcliffe, is bearing the brunt of an influx of applications, with the council currently allocating, at last count, 140 children to the school. Given the headteacher’s efforts to retain its ‘good’ Ofsted rating and consequent induction process (to determine language needs and academic courses, for example), some children are waiting months to actually start school.

But this isn’t just about the delays. Children are being sent to schools that are miles away from their homes. Of the 327 in-year secondary applications to Milton Keynes council this year, 120 of them have not got any of their three preferences. Many are being sent to Radcliffe, even though for some this is a journey of several miles, with up to three bus changes. In fact, of the 140 new pupils at the Radcliffe, a staggering 119 are not from the school’s catchment area.

I believe there are several reasons why the Radcliffe has borne the brunt of this influx of admissions. First of all, we have several new secondary schools in Milton Keynes. These have often been built before the new estates that are set to surround them. Upon opening, the schools have filled their places with children from all across Milton Keynes. But when the new houses are built nearby, there are simply not spaces for the new children. Headteachers have told me how they wanted to hold places, but there is no financial incentive to do this. Therefore, I recommended during my debate that some form of ghost funding system be established.

We now have the Milton Keynes Academy, the city’s first, which opened in September 2009. While this is a fantastic facility, its admission level is actually lower than its predecessor. As a result there has been a displacement of pupils from its catchment area. Therefore the Radcliffe is now seeing applicants from the Netherfield estate, which is nearly seven miles away – but only one from the Academy.

Many families coming Milton Keynes have faced bizarre schooling situations. Take the Mumfords, who moved to a street in Newport Pagnell which overlooks Ousedale School. Upon applying to the council, two sisters were not offered a place over the road, but at the school’s campus eight miles away, in the town of Olney. They were told they could go to the Radcliffe instead, which is slightly closer, but would have to wait two months to start.

Likewise, another pupil moved to Olney – near to Ousedale’s second campus – only to be offered a place at Radcliffe. As there is no bus service there, he was offered a taxi to take him there and back every day, which costs the local authority around £2,875 a year.

We must emphasise how important it is for children to simply be able to walk to school with their mates – for health, friendship and the environment. The Radcliffe has already seen a drop in engagement and attendance among its out-of-catchment intake. Do we really want to turn our pupils into juvenile commuters, reading bus timetables rather than textbooks?

I welcome the freedom of schools to set their admissions criteria, and the fairness underpinning the councils’ role in allocation. But headteachers need to be allowed to hold places, just like armed forces schools do, and that is what I recommended to the schools minister Nick Gibb. We need a new system; it is the only thing that would make access to schools fair for all those new kids.

Mark Lancaster is the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes North.

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