Gazette Article 1: “Picking a school can be confusing”

First articlePublished in the Brentwood Gazette – September 26th 2012

In common with hundreds of Brentwood’s parents, I have until the end of next month to select my preferences for a secondary school for my son for September 2013 entry. I am unsure why Essex County Council (ECC) need five months to process applications ready for National Offer day on 1st March, I am even less clear why they “strongly recommend” that we list six preferences.

Those who are selecting a school for the first time for their child have nineteen state funded primary schools in Brentwood to choose from so it may be possible in that case but it will be a challenge for Year 6 parents to find six to list. My parents did not have this dilemma, along with 90% of my classmates I attended the closest secondary school to my house. If only things were still that simple.

Our closest school is Becket Keys free school whose religious priorities make it an inappropriate choice for us. ECC’s “priority admissions checker” tells us that Shenfield High School is our allocated community school but Brentwood County High School is half the distance away. Both list our child’s primary school as a feeder school as does St Martin’s School. We look forward to attending the open events at all three in the next fortnight and hope we can then fill at least half of the ECC requirement. Impressive recently reported exam results provide plenty of reassurance about those selections.

So why do we need to state six? The 2009 Consultation that led to the closure of Sawyers Hall College clearly demonstrated that we have surplus secondary places in the town. On that basis, the chances of your first or second preferences being met must have increased. A cynic might suggest that choosing six increases the likelihood of ECC being able to claim that they have met stated preferences of parents. In any case, beware those claiming that their school is over–subscribed later this school year, a sixth preference still counts as an “application”.

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One of the side effects of increased parental choice of school can be seen on Brentwood’s roads at certain times of the day. Jill the much valued lollipop lady in Sawyers Hall Lane can bear testimony to what can happen when the most local school is not the default choice of residents. There are four primary schools in the street and it is not uncommon to have a traffic queue all the way back to Ongar Road.

How realistic were Becket Keys free school’s proposers then when they presented the following statement to the Department for Education? “It will be [a] local school, serving its own community with all of its students able to walk or cycle to school”.  By their own admission their initial intake has come from “over 20 schools”. They must have some early rising and fit pupils.

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The government have recently encouraged schools to give greater consideration to affordability when setting their uniform policy. I was shocked to be told by a local parent this week about how this differs between schools. The cost for her daughter was double that of her son, she estimated £600, so is it a disadvantage to have a girl in the family? Parents now have to weigh up a choice of trousers or skirts, and now kilts, in assessing the cost of schooling.

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