Holly Whittaker and her daughter were one of 72 applicants who didn’t receive any of their preferred primary school places in Redbridge this year. Here, Holly tells their story and highlights the problems
Monday, 16 April 2018 is a day I remember all too clearly. It should have been an exciting day, finding out the primary school place my daughter would be attending, sharing the news with her and getting her all excited about the prospect of starting ‘big school’.
Instead, when the email finally came through that evening, our excitement turned to disbelief in a matter of seconds. The email told us we had not got any of our six preferred options, instead they had placed us in a school two and a half miles from where we live – over an hour’s walk from our home on a route across Charlie Brown’s Roundabout.
We found this out in a year when the number of applications received for primary school places in Redbridge had dropped for the second year running and a record number (88%) of applicants had got their first choice. We were one of the unfortunate 72 applicants who did not get any of their choices.
In the local papers we read that the corporate director of people for Redbridge Council had promised the 72 of us that they had a ‘team of people on hand to help with the options available’. We never received a single call or any help whatsoever from anyone at the council.
We were worried about the effect this would have on both of our children and our family life. As a two-parent working family, the options at the time were one of us leaving our job or having to move from our family home. The round journey to my son’s nursery on to my daughter’s school and then to work would be a three-hour commute, twice a day. The effect on our daughter was very upsetting to witness. She did not understand why, unlike all of her nursery friends, she did not know what school she was going to or why she was not going to the same school as them.
When looking into it, parents over the years in Woodford and South Woodford seemed to suffer the same fate we had. Some had either settled on an out-of-borough school or were forced to send their children to private school and some, as a last option, had moved out of the borough altogether.
The reasons were clear: no investment for many years in creating new school places. Even with the development of Queen Mary’s Gate some 10 years ago, creating 498 homes and housing at least 900 people, no new primary school places were created on the back of this. There are also new flats constantly going up in the local vicinity, such as the Scenix development in 2016 (58 flats), the new multi-storey development on the old Waltham Forest Fencing site and, more recently, the signed-off development for homeless families on Chigwell Road (a location chosen in part for its proximity to the local primary school, one that this year already has a waiting list of over 30).
From our research, it appears the council chose only to invest in new primary school places in the south and central parts of the borough, but as a result, have built overcapacity in these areas, with talk of schools now closing.
As well as this lack of investment, when we looked into the actual admissions process itself, it seemed flawed and open to abuse. No proper process is in place for dealing with the issue of ‘addresses of convenience’ (people applying from a friend or family member’s address). Neighbouring boroughs have a number of processes in place to tackle this issue, but when discussing this with the head of primary admissions in Redbridge, their method seems to count only on the goodwill of people and putting their head in the sand, denying this process could possibly be going on.
In a year where the number of applications for primary school places across London and in Redbridge had fallen, the number of applications for schools in this area had risen. When we questioned the council on this, they put it down to a localised jump in the birth rate for that school year. However, when we referenced this against children of that age, born in 2013 and 2014 and registered in local GP practices, that also showed a 5.7% drop. So, in this case, who were the children applying for these places causing this increase? Were these local children or was it the pull of schools like Churchfields – an outstanding school, which we have since found out is known in the borough for many as a ‘free Bancrofts’ – that was driving this?
Added to this was the issue with siblings having priority. Once a child has gained entry to a school fraudulently, they cannot be removed after a term. Even if they are found out to have gained access on the back of false information, all their siblings would still have a priority place over local children, no matter where they lived.
It was frustrating to discover we would have stood a better chance of getting into our nearest school by lying about our address. The council never got round to verifying and signing off all applications in terms of proof of addresses. Indeed, at the time of writing, there have been little over 100 home visits out of the 3,698 applications made by the deadline. It is clear there is no effective process in place to ensure the children awarded places in local schools are local children.
In the end, after the trauma of school appeals, with the evidence we had uncovered, we won an appeal for Oakdale Infant School, one of our six preferences. Although double the distance of our nearest school, the relief was enormous knowing we did not have to move and we could finally tell our daughter which school she would attend.
Throughout the whole process, we had tremendous help from our local councillor Stephen Adams, who has supported us every step of the way and is working with the council on an urgent review of their lack of investment in primary school places in the area.
Enough is enough. It is time to stop local children being cheated out of local school places. Redbridge Council needs to be held accountable for years of maladministration and lack of investment in primary school places.