Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More on Finding a School in London

The other day when I wrote about school admissions I didn't specify which type of school, public or private, I meant.  If you are American you probably assumed that I wrote of private schools.  You are right, but I could have written that advice with both types of schools in mind.  You put your children on the school list later in the public system, usually around 3 instead of birth, but otherwise the admissions process isn't that different. (The terms "public" and "private" don't translate directly to British English, but since this post is more likely to be used by Americans than Brits, I'll use the terms in the American sense.)

The British public admissions system looks a lot like their private admissions system just with catchment areas.  Unlike in the US, there are can be multiple state funded--even state funded religious schools--in a given area.  So if you live at 1 Ivy Lane you might have a host of schools to chose from, some secular, some Catholic, some Anglican, some Jewish, etc. You apply for an interview and, based upon the schools' catchment areas and whatever other criteria the schools want to impose, you try to get your kid accepted.  For instance, if the best school in your area is Catholic, and if it requires pupils to be Catholic, and if and you aren't, you won't be offered a place.  Even if the school of your choice has no additional requirements, if the school is oversubscribed, which often happens if the school has a good reputation, you might not get a spot.  The catchment area for automatic attendance might be nonexistent, very small, and/or difficult to ascertain.  Things like minority status and special needs can affect your chances of getting a place.  Apparently, parents hire lawyers to fill out their child's application so they don't miss any possible advantage.  Parents also often find religion on the school house steps.  Extreme measures are so prevalent that they inspire satire.  Here is an advice thread I found on an expat forum from a few years ago that details some of the issues.

It is one thing to not get your first choice when applying in the private system.   It is quite another to not have a choice within the state system.  Therefore, the powers that be are considering a lottery.  Or something similar to charter schools or homeschool co-ops like we have at home.  This seems very new around here and I don't know if it will take off well.  If interested, here's a little info on parents starting schools in the US and possibly using web vlogs like the Kahn Academy on YouTube.

For more info on getting into school around here, see here. (Yes, I know the text refers to private schools, but they mean public.  The terms are sort of reversed here.  It's complicated.  But that's the info you want.)  The Times has a School Gate blog, subscription required.  Here are a few excerpts:

Local authorities will usually allow you to specify three schools, ranked in order of preference. The first thing you need to do is research which schools your child has a good chance of being accepted at – if a school is very popular, it may be that your child will only be accepted if you live within a few hundred metres of the school. Similarly, some faith schools prioritise children who have been baptised or can prove regular church attendance[.]
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 Education is really in trouble if a child can't be offered a school place at any school. But that's what is happening now. And without much blame or apparent disapproval. Don't people care?
There is currently a huge demand for primary school places, especially in London. It's suggested that there are 2,250 places too few this year, and that this will almost double next year. Each of these children has a family, and those families are confused and stressed. I personally know one little boy who hasn't been offered a place at any school in the borough. Yes, that's right. It wasn't that he didn't get any of his preferences; he wasn't offered anything. And the family has simply been told too wait. It's their first foray into education in this country - and not exactly impressive.
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Many parents are genuinely angry that the great school at the bottom of the road or within walking distance is closed to their children. This may be because it's a faith school, or because the school has become so popular, you need to live within around 50 metres of its door. Such schools often end up with very a rich cohort of pupils, who get in because of their geographical location. House prices are pushed up because of catchment area demand and the school becomes covertly selective.
Then there are the other ways to "play the system". Some parents give up and go private, others lie about their address, find religion or move (often renting) to get into a good school. Local authorities know this, and are getting wise, but it still happens. Still, I can't blame my LA for demanding copies of your most recent council tax statement and two utility bills to be sent with new school applications. If your address has changed in the last two years, they are even asking for proof of purchase or rental of the new property, and fascinatingly, "disposal of the previous property." Perhaps this is a new way to catch out those clever parents who rent a property on a short-term basis to try and get into a good school.
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Parents say that they want a choice, and the choice would be there as much as it is at the moment - parents should choose the schools they want, and know that if their choice is over-subscribed, the decision about who gets in is made via a lottery. What could be fairer?
The idea of putting the words "education" and "lottery" together just sound wrong. But in practice, they might just work. Yes, there is a possible environmental concern - children who live further away might get in and have to drive there rather than walk - but this could be got round by still having some kind of catchment area. I also think that the siblings rule should stay, at least for primary school. Otherwise it will be a nightmare for parents. But if you can suggest a fairer policy for everyone, I'd like to know about it.

In case you are wondering, in the US you'd simply move to the area zoned to your school of choice.  If the school is popular, the home values are higher, as are the property taxes.  Some friends in Dallas did the math and, at least for Highland Park in Dallas, you break even, private tuition v. home price/property taxes at about 1.6 children.  Therefore if you have 2 children, private v. public is almost a wash.  For three or more children, it makes more economic sense to pay more for a house.  (There might be other reasons for doing private schools, of course.)  If you can't afford a house zoned to a school you prefer, there are often independent charter schools or school district magnet schools.   Navigating a magnet system might be similar to the British system, just the exception, not the rule.  Tax vouchers are available in some states, but for a discussion on that query Matthew Ladner or Jay P. Greene and school vouchers.  (I'll post updates for more direct info as soon as I have time to get them.  Ladner, I've got to go do dinner for the kiddos, if you are reading send me a good summary.)

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