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Bookham parents claim admissions policy 'biased against local children'

When Surrey County Council (SCC) informed parents in March 2007 of school-place allocations for the following September there was uproar from one corner of the county. A change in Surrey's admission rules meant that over 30 children in East and West Horsley who had expected to go to the Howard were allocated places at Therfield in Leatherhead and at schools in Guildford and Woking instead.

According to Andrew Baxter of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) , who ruled on the case (panel above), the changes Surrey had made to its 2007 admission arrangements after 'extensive consultation' 'were designed to take account of developing national policy and to simplify what had become an elaborate and complex set of arrangements.'

The criteria for the September 2007 entry to the Howard were the same as for all other Surrey schools. Siblings, whether from feeder schools or not, had first priority (after children in care and those with exceptional arrangements). Next came children who lived nearest a school – and the decider if 'tie-break' decisions had be made between pupils with otherwise equal claims to a place was the shortest, straight-line distance from school.

Said Baxter, though the SCC's changes 'appear to have been successfully implemented across the County,' they had unintended impacts on admissions to some schools. Some children, he said, meaning those in the Horsleys, had been 'denied places at schools which have traditionally served their communities.'

To pacify the Horsley parents , the SCC set out new proposals, notified to schools in a letter dated 9 May 2007, for six feeder or 'partner' schools for the Howard of Effingham: the Dawnay and Eastwick Junior in Bookham, St Lawrence in Effingham, the Raleigh in Horsley, Oakfield in Fetcham and Royal Kent Oxshott, all members of the Effingham Learning Partnership.

This created an immediate problem. The Howard had only 240 places in 2008 for the 330 'Year 6' children (discounting siblings) in the feeder schools.

The Howard was eventually able to offer all applicants a place by adding an extra class. And, according to 'Don't Drive Our Children Away' (DDOCA), the limited company set up by parents in Bookham, Effingham and Fetcham to contest the adjudicator's ruling, at the end of the 2007 allocation process the Howard even had some spare places. These were reallocated to children from Fetcham who had already accepted places at alternative schools.

But the Horsley parents still weren't happy. As Baxter put it, the SCC's proposals were 'less secure than [these residents] might reasonably expect.' The parents appealed to the OSA to have the admissions criteria for the Howard of Effingham changed.

Every child, said Baxter, should be 'confident of admission to at least one reasonably accessible school.' Since any surplus numbers among the 'partner schools', said Baxter, might still work against pupils from the Horsleys unless they already had a sibling at the Howard, this was unfair to the 'small but significant minority of children' who lived in the Horsleys.

Baxter's September 27 ruling upheld the Horsley parents' objections: 'Priority will be given to children living furthest away from the nearest alternative school' as measured by a straight line from home to the school's nearest entrance. A similar ruling was made for the Oxted School in the Tandridge district.

The ruling relies on an interpretation of the legally enforceable School Admissions Code which stresses the need to balance the needs of rural pupils, who may not have easy access to an alternative school, with those of urban children, who have more choice.

So, by one interpretation, the issue has been settled by Baxter's view that the Horsleys is 'rural' and Bookham, Effingham and Fetcham are 'urban': 'It is accepted that both of these alternatives would have the effect of displacing some children living closer to the Howard of Effingham School, but their proposers point out that these children will have reasonable access to at least one alternative school.'

Parents in Bookham feel the SCC and the adjudicator made a cosy arrangement with the well-heeled 'Keep Horsley in the Howard' campaign without consulting those who would be affected by that accommodation.

Which is why DDOCA was set up to object to the criteria for 2008 'and to propose a fair solution for the future'. Such a solution, says the DDOCA, would 'ensure that the children living most local to the school, many of whose families have walked and cycled to the Howard for many decades, do not needlessly have to be bussed to schools some distance from their homes.'

The ruling lasts one year because the SCC is still revising its admission proposals. It plans drop the use of feeder schools for admissions in September 2009. Surrey's 2009 proposals are published on its website.

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