Split over School Admissions

When Lydgate Middle School was opened, in 1974, it occupied only what is now our main building, and had a pupil capacity of 360. It was in the style of the time; open-plan, fluid, with support or withdrawal spaces, and a space allowance for cultural activities that might make noise.

In response to two pressures – the impossibility of teaching three classes in each open-plan base, and local needs for more Primary school places - we now have 485 pupils and so-called ‘mobile’ classrooms for 8 classes.

All schools have what is known as an ‘Indicative Pupil Number’ – this is the number of pupils at which the school is most efficient; any more pupils and each we have will suffer a little of what is called ‘prejudice’.  It is not a legal limit (unless the school is open just for Key Stage 1, because they are limited by Infant Class Size rules) but does lead to admission numbers and the need for both Admission Policies and Admission Appeals.

Once we are full (at 120 or more in a year group) any new applications are simply refused by the Local Authority. But as we live in a fully-functioning democracy parents get to use the appeal process if they wish. An independent panel of three hears the LA case (basically ‘we are full’) and then the parents’ case. They, the Panel, make a decision that is binding on both parties – if they award a place then we have to admit the child and make no fuss about it.

Should I argue at all to try to prevent extra admissions at appeal; after all it is rather flattering that parents want to send their children to our school, isn’t it? Each extra child admitted will, eventually, bring extra cash into school’s budget, and a local need will have been met. A local family will have been supported, and the local community will have been strengthened. A parent’s wishes and preferences will have been met. Travel and transport issues are likely to be reduced.  Our school’s own future will be sustained.

I ‘lose’ about 40% of appeals – children are admitted over our admission number in about 4 in 10 appeals. The school does not fall apart as a result of an extra child being admitted; we carry on much as before and outcomes remain remarkably high. So why do I try so hard to prevent extra admissions?

I submit a statement in advance of each appeal hearing that runs to 9 pages. I still attend the panel hearings even though I know many Headteachers do not. Successive panel chairs have complimented me on the thoroughness, honesty and accuracy of my statement. They say it pretty much removes the need for them to ask me any questions, and parents very rarely do ask anything.

Though I do sympathise with the parent appealing for a place here I argue in favour of protecting the provision for the children we already have. I know that admitting one more pupil does impact on every one we have in school already, child and adult alike. School classrooms are simply not the same as a lecture theatre – the interaction is vastly different and ratio is hugely important in allowing it to be positive and tuned to individual need. (I do remember when the ‘new’ lecture theatre was opened on the Collegiate Crescent site of Sheffield City Polytechnic, in about 1986, and it being too small for the BEd (Hons) course – in every lecture some students sat on the steps in the aisles. Same lecturer, same notes, same lecture.)

This is where Franz Kafka comes in. You’d think that I would be learning from the 60% I ‘win’, and from the 40% l ’lose’, and improving my average over time. Once I hear what it was about a particular argument that won a place I should be able to counter that next time, and so continually shut off avenues of approach. I’d do that if only I knew why one parent wins and another loses. You see, we only get told the outcome of the appeal and not the reasoning behind it.

There is an obvious absurdity in Kafka’s The Trial when the protagonist is arrested by unidentified officers of an unidentified authority on unspecified charges, and told to appear at an unspecified time before an unidentified court in an un-named room. Not being told why we won or lost feels a little like this. I have to reconcile that I do not need to know on this particular occasion because the decision is final, and as each appeal is separate; one outcome in one appeal is supposed to be irrelevant to the next appeal. We have, indeed, had multiple appeals in one day, winning some and losing others, but never we assume on the grounds that having given a place to the first one the school is now too overfull.

I question whether I should be honest, but I strongly believe that there is a simple moral imperative here. I cannot truthfully say that my school will be in crisis if we accept another pupil into any year group, because it will not be. We will continue to manage and teach well and school will continue to be highly successful. If my being honest is one of the reasons we lose some appeals (when the question is asked about whether we could cope) then we must accept that we will continue to lose.

I do ‘get’ parents’ frustration – they buy an expensive house in the catchment for a highly successful school and then find once they move in that no places are available. They get offered a place at a school a couple of miles and two bus journeys away, where getting there will pose family care problems and getting to work on time problems. Some will be choosing us for the feeder school status (we aren’t so blinkered as not to realise this) and will hate that moving into S10 does not guarantee their preference. All this I note and understand, but how do we ensure the quality of what we must provide for the 485 that we already have? Space is the final frontier, and we have precious little of it with 125 children more on site than school was designed and built for in 1974.

I will keep on arguing against further admissions and hope to maintain a win / loss ratio of 1.5 to 1 or better.

https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/home/schools-childcare/apply-school-place

The next Admission Appeals for our school (two children, two different year groups, no idea about the context as we don’t get told and it’s none of my business) are in a couple of weeks. I have tweaked my submission having been asked a novel question at last week’s Panel (and ‘lost’) and I will appear again at the Panel hearing.

There may be hearings after Easter about September admissions into Year 3 if we are over-subscribed and parents push for Appeals. I’ll appear there, too. It is an unseen part of the Headteacher’s role.

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