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Make or break SCC meetings about to decide future Howard admissions

February 13, 2009: Two Surrey County Council (SCC) meetings next month will decide the educational fate of children in Bookham. The meetings may deny them places at the Howard of Effingham comprehensive school in 2010 – though they may also determine admissions policy after that date.

According to Don’t Drive our Children Away (DDOCA), the local campaign to assure Bookham children of Howard places, the Howard is the only secondary school in Surrey which does not have enough spaces for those children for whom it is their nearest secondary school.

In a new statement issued ahead of the SCC meeting, DDOCA says planned local house building, affects of the recession on private education, high birth years and other factors, are likely to continue to put pressure on space at the school in the future. "Therefore any tie break criteria which affect the Bookhams and surrounding areas are increasingly important until such time as the school has sufficient capacity," says DDOCA.

"The standard Surrey tie break, used for the majority of schools in the county, is 'straight line distance from the school.' Unfortunately SCC is applying a little-used tie break of distance from the nearest alternative school (NAS) – regardless of whether that school has spaces."

SCC agrees that the NAS criterion, even with feeder schools, favours those to the west of the school, mainly the communities of East and West Horsley. The SCC's reasons for choosing NAS aren't clear. DDOCA believes the SCC has been influenced by the fact that the Horsleys are rural whilst Bookham is considered urban. The SCC is concerned that children from the rural communities would not be able to get into the Howard and that those in West Horsley may not get into a school in Guildford or Sheerwater.

DDOCA chairman David Cox says it has asked SCC to test this concern by modelling 'straight line distance' against NAS. The campaign believes that with catchment and feeder schools on straight line distance, state school children in West Horsley and its Raleigh School "would have no problems [because] the criteria that caused the hooha originally was distance by road. Straight line brings the Horsleys much closer."

But the SCC refused to meet this modelling challenge – even when DDOCA offered to pay towards the cost, says Cox.

2009 Admissions – notification of places due in early March

Although DDOCA has continued to oppose this criterion "with limited success to date," says DDOCA, "some important safeguards were achieved for 2009." These include the retention of feeder schools (which at least spread the available spaces more fairly across the catchment), a defined catchment area, "and pressure on SCC to over offer."

Over-offering means the SCC offers more places at the Howard than are available, as it did in the 2008 academic year. The DDOCA says the SCC's calculation is that, if it does this, only a few children will be denied Howard places, and those will probably not be in feeder schools.

Cox is pleased that over-offering has meant that more Bookham children have won Howard places. The indications," he says, "are that SCC believes that most, if not all, children living in the catchment and attending a feeder school will be offered a place at the Howard if that is their preference, which is excellent.

"However, for those not at a feeder school, such as those attending denominational primary schools, families recently moving to the area or those wishing to move from private education, if any spaces do remain, priority will go to those in the Horsleys and the west of the catchment at the expense of children living closer to the school."

Cox fears that this policy's apparent damage limitation allows SCC to carry on with the, in DDOCA's view, flawed NAS criterion and promotes apathy in Bookham. He also fears that, if SCC over-offers again this year, and only a few children lose Howard places, "everyone in the Bookhams will wonder what the fuss is and DDOCA disappears."

It's already working, he says: "The response from the Bookhams to the 2010 consultation was very poor – less than half of the Horsleys with a much bigger population."

The DDOCA wants anyone living within the catchment area who is unsuccessful in their application for The Howard for 2009 to e-mail DDOCA advising the campaign where they live and which school they have been allocated.

2010 – Consultation on admissions criteria – important dates

On 26 February DDOCA presents to SCC's Schools & Learning Select Committee (SLSC) objecting to the Nearest Available School (NAS) criterion. The campaign will also emphasise that, if NAS is retained, the retention of the feeder schools and a fair catchment area are critical to providing some protection to those living in the Bookhams.

This closed meeting, says Cox, is the one DDOCA has to influence, "just to keep what we have. There is a danger we may not." The SCC Officers have put forward their recommendation to the Schools Admissions Forum who then pass it onto the SLSC. It is hard to overrule the Officers but not impossible. They want NAS and may even move the catchment – to the detriment of the East.

The SLSC's final recommendation for 2010 admissions criteria goes to the Executive for approval on March 3. DDOCA will also present to that meeting, which is held in public. Details will be published on the DDOCA's website, as will the meeting's decision.

Since the meeting is public, says Cox, "It will be good if we had some support just to show the community cares about the issue – an issue which will not go away until SCC increase the capacity. And that is our long term goal."

Update, April 2009: DDOCA reports mixed success
The DDOCA campaign reported on its website that it was pleased that, as a result of the March 3 meeting, all children living in the Howard catchment area and attending one of the five feeder schools were offered places in 2009. Though disappointed that two children in the east of the Bookham/Fetcham catchment who could walk or cycle to the school were not offered a place, "this is a much lower figure than we had expected." DDOCA also noted that 17 of the 136 siblings offered places this year "are ‘out of catchment siblings’ for whom the Howard is not their closest school."

But the news on criteria for 2010 Admissions is not so good. The DDOCA had objected to the NAS tie break as inequitable and difficult for parents to understand. If it were retained, the DDOCA would support the retention of the catchment and five existing feeder schools. And it proposed a long-term solution to reduce the priority for “out of catchment siblings”. This would provide places for all children living in the catchment and would make NAS or any other special criteria unnecessary.

The meeting voted to retain the NAS and against changing the priority for out of catchment siblings on the recommendation of Councillor Peter Martin (Con, Godalming South Milford and Witley), Surrey's cabinet member for schools, children and youth services.

Martin said SCC needed “a period of stability to enable those arrangements to be tested robustly and to provide some benchmarking for parents to make informed decisions.” But he went on to recommend changing the criteria for 2010 to include the Royal Kent, near Oxshott, as an additional feeder school.

Says DDOCA: "The addition of the Royal Kent… was not consulted on, nor raised at the public meeting at The Howard in December attended by over 200 local people." Bookham and Fetcham West SCC member Jim Smith had made a statement to the Full Council objecting to the late inclusion of the Royal Kent as a feeder school.

Smith said: "The Executive was informed that all of the schools in the ELP supported the request of the Admissions Forum to include the Royal Kent. However, I am advised that this in not so and I have received e-mails from Chairmen of Governors in some of the feeder schools to confirm this.

"It is clear that if the County Council accepts this part of the recommendation in Item 11, it will perpetuate the deep seated feeling of those that I represent, that the integrity of the Schools Admission Consultation process in Surrey, is either at best very confused, or more likely not to be trusted."

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