The Illusion Of Choice – Why Catchment No Longer Counts

I recently saw an advert for ‘Right Move’ and in particular for its ‘School Checker’. The advert made me slightly bilious and in that moment, incredibly angry. I would like to see the terms and conditions of such a service as in my experience ‘catchment’ is not worth the paper it is written on.

I am also slightly concerned that Phil and Kirstie and the production team for Location, Location, Location continue to place such emphasis on catchment as a criteria for an imminent house move. An article featured in The Telegraph newspaper in April this year claimed that some families would pay up to £52,000 more for a property in an area that had ‘outstanding’ schools. It strikes me however that it may be akin to placing your life savings on the questionable odds of a blind ‘nag’.

Of course, if a vendor could place a guarantee in their contract that a school place(s) came with the house then fair enough. However the reality is that in many areas there are just not enough school places for the children who need them.

In my experience, parents appear to fall into one of three categories when applying for primary school places:

There are the ‘Tiger’ parents who will only live in one of 12 streets within a given area and who ingest both the Ofsted Report and the School Admissions Code every night before bed. Those who ensure their application is in ahead of time and that proximity to school is close enough that their cat will ‘spray’ its way to the top of the list.

Then there are the relaxed parents, who are happy as long as the school has a roof and running water. Where Ofsted is of no consequence and where they may have forgotten to get the form in on time, if at all, such is their laissez faire attitude.

I like to think we are the as yet unnamed middle group, we care greatly but also apply a level head and as such feel at times, a little ignored.

We insured we had submitted an ‘on time’ primary school application. However we were not offered either of our choices, nor were we afforded a place at any of our other priority schools. Don’t get me wrong, our child was never what they call ‘displaced’ but for a great deal of time we felt very much on the margins. Whilst others were out buying PE kit and book bags we were in a place of limbo, unsure how we might move forward.

The school we were offered was 2 miles from our home and at the upper threshold of the statutory walking distance for a child under eight. As is true for many, we were not entitled to support with transport costs.

The alternative therefore would be to walk? The thought of walking such a distance with a buggy and a four year old didn’t feel like a reasonable option. By my Google supported calculation, we would be tramping the streets for 2.5 hours a day… and our local authority thought this was acceptable!?

We realised far too late that school catchment is simply a geographical guide, a crude framework for the division of places. It is not (as we believed) a God given right to a school place. We spoke at length to our local Conservative MP who sympathised but was unable to make any real change to our circumstances.

He insisted that all was being done to ensure that future housing development within the area would be accompanied with an increase in primary school places in line with local authority policy.

We also participated in the appeals process and armed with a well thumbed and thoroughly highlighted copy of the School Admissions Code we argued our case. We brought a moral case to the table but at the end of that emotional and draining day, the law won

Much has been made of educational provision over recent years and it is still good to know that teaching groups remain at 30 or below. However, with an increase in population due in part to EU migration, there is a very real need to review and revise local infrastructure. The wealth of cultural diversity and its benefits also need to be echoed in the increased provision of local services. However it would appear that local authority budget cuts show no sign of abating and the previous ring fence around educational funding to secure further development appears to be under threat.

We live in Rugby, Warwickshire an area that is continually expanding with significant housing development occurring over the next few years. We currently stand as having a population of 102,500 (as of 2014) and with little to no change made in the town’s infrastructure, it would appear that we may soon find we reach crisis point within local services.

Our situation is not unique in the UK but it’s safe to say that many will be unaware of just how contentious the school admissions process is. Unless changes are made, we may actually find that soon there will be no choice at all. Whilst we still have a choice, we must endeavour to make the right one. As parents that is all that we can do.

The rest I’m afraid is in the lap of the Gods.