Schools hampered by rising numbers

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IT is with considerable frustration that I read of the case of Jamie Lowe and his failure to get into Heene First School.

I am a governor of the school and I have looked into the situation of allocation closely this year. For the first time in recent years, Heene is over-subscribed with applicants.

Heene is deservedly popular with an outstanding Ofsted, good examination results and a reputation for a small, local community school. However, this is not the only reason for over-subscription. The population of “rising fives” in the Heene catchment area has increased greatly in recent years. The preschool run by my church (St Matthew’s Pre-school) is so over-subscribed, it has opened its waiting list for September, 2012, despite having increased maximum attendance twice in two years.

It was predictable that the situation of over-subscription to Heene would arise. The catchment area runs from the railway line to the sea, but the school is in the northern part of the catchment. If there is over-subscription from within catchment, it is those furthest away as the crow flies who do not get in.

Therefore, inevitably, it is those near the seafront who will be excluded. At the same time, those children will not get into any other school that is oversubscribed because they are out of catchment.

Due to this population increase, the schools surrounding Heene are the ones that are also full. Thus, the children living near the seafront are severely disadvantaged in the system over all other children in Worthing.

This year, if you live in the area approximately south of Rowlands Road and east of Grand Avenue, the schools allocated appear to have been Durrington or Hawthorns. They were almost certainly on no-one’s preference list, due to distance. This is deeply unjust. Jamie Lowe has been dreadfully treated by the county system.

What can be done about this? First of all, Heene governors can do nothing. We are equally powerless when it comes to over-subscription.

One solution is a change in catchment areas. However, that would mean Heene’s catchment area becoming very long and thin and would only pass the same pressure to neighbouring schools, also full.

A second solution (which would have worked this year) is that all first preferences from within Heene catchment get in. It is bizarre (and something I cannot explain or even understand) that second or third preference children in catchment, having failed to get into their other preferences due to over-subscription in those schools, were given a place at Heene, ahead of those in Heene catchment who put Heene as first preference (like Jamie Lowe) who live further away. It would be good for someone from county to explain the justice of those decisions. There is a rumour that they were simply computer generated.

Another possibility would be to start working a feeder school system (rather than catchment area). This removes any sense of “choice” (commonly believed but never real) or “preference”. However, it does mean that children stay together throughout their school years, increasing bonds of friendship and security.

However, the real solution comes with money and a building programme. County has always opposed this on the grounds that there is no overall population increase in Worthing. Tell that to the parents of Jamie Lowe!

There is a marked demographic shift of young families from the north to the south of the town. This means our schools are in the wrong places. At the same time, Worthing desperately requires a change from a middle school/first school system to a primary system.

Every other area in West Sussex has been given the opportunity to change except Worthing, which has been deprived by West Sussex on (again) the grounds of cost. A primary system is preferable educationally but it would also give the opportunity to increase capacity by ensuring any new building work happened at schools where there was population increase.

At present, the preference system is a game and you need to know your catchment area, whether the school in your catchment area was over-subscribed on first (or second) preferences last year, and the same for neighbouring schools.

In the case of over-subscription, you need to find out whether your home was inside or outside the area where children got in. Having got this data (and hoping there isn’t too great a population change in one year), one can then start assessing preferred schools and the possible penalty for not putting the catchment school as first preference.

But, if you are in the position of Jamie Lowe, the only answer is to move house – for him there was no meaningful preference.

Rev John Chitham

governor of Heene First School and vicar of St Matthew’s Church

Tarring Road

Worthing