Admission impossible

8th April 2011 at 01:00
The annual scramble for school places can bring out the worst in parents. Adi Bloom spent a day with the frontline troubleshooters in Europe's biggest local authority to find out how they cope with it.

The council offices are deserted when Julie Newbold arrives. She sits at her desk and logs into the system; she has barely hit the last digit of her passcode when the phone starts ringing.



"I'm still waiting for my letter," the woman at the other end of the line says abruptly. "My admissions letter hasn't arrived yet."

Julie Newbold is head of admissions for Birmingham City Council, the largest education authority in Europe. Every year on 1 March, around 15,000 11-year-olds are allocated places at one of the city's grammar or comprehensive schools. Those parents who have submitted their applications online can find out their results on 1 March; the rest must wait until their letter arrives in the post, one day later. And this is when the phone calls begin.

Mrs Newbold takes a deep breath. "It's only 25 to eight," she says. "Does your postman usually come at this time?" There is a pause on the other end of the line. Mrs Newbold senses that the woman is keen for a fight, and changes tack. "Would you like me to look up your results now?"

The woman is caught short. "Yes, please," she says, her tone more conciliatory.

Mrs Newbold reads out the results: the woman's 11-year-old son has been admitted to his third-choice secondary school. Initially, there is silence on the other end of the line. Then: "Oh."

Slowly, carefully, Mrs Newbold explains why the decision has been made. The boy lives five miles from his first-choice school, six miles from his second choice. His third-choice school, however, is 500 metres from his home. "Your little boy will be able to walk to school," she tells the mother. "He may be able to cycle there in future. Think about the healthy lifestyle." By the time the woman hangs up, she is much happier with the outcome.

Mrs Newbold places the phone back on the hook; almost immediately, it starts ringing again.


"All I want to do is prepare you for the worst-case scenario," says Joe Tees. He hooks the phone under his ear and clicks his mouse. "But, obviously, it's your decision."

Down the corridor from Mrs Newbold's office, her team of 35 staff are fielding phone calls from concerned parents. Mr Tees sits underneath a large map of Birmingham, one of several pinned to the office walls. On a whiteboard in the corner, someone has written the names of the secondaries that currently have vacancies: one in the north of the city, three central schools and seven in the south. This list will change throughout the week, as places are taken up and others - usually by parents who would rather go private than accept second choice - are freed up.

A few minutes later, Mr Tees hangs up the phone. "They weren't offered a place at their preferred grammar school," he says. "I was just advising them that they had the right to appeal to the school for a place."

Parents whose child has not been offered a place at their first-choice secondary often respond with a knee-jerk "I'm going to appeal". The office's staff are politely firm: parents are welcome to appeal if they choose, but they should also accept the offer that they currently have. A rejected offer followed by an unsuccessful appeal could mean that the child ends up going to school at the opposite end of the city.

Desperate parents regularly resort to desperate measures. Already, one has asked a member of the admissions staff how much it will cost to move his child up a school's waiting list. Others are more subtle. For example, one parent insisted that she and her child had gone to live with a relative. Council records, however, revealed that this relative was still claiming single-occupancy discount on council tax. Another mother was adamant that she was living at one address, while nonetheless claiming housing benefit for another.

Occasionally, staff will receive a tip-off - sometimes, not always, anonymous - advising that a family does not actually live at the address given. There are occasional false allegations, too: one parent, for example, immediately identified a tip-off as coming from a vexatious neighbour. In these cases, Mrs Newbold will conduct surprise visits, knocking on the purported familial front door.

"Anybody who's genuinely moved home is delighted we're doing these checks," she says. "They get confidence that the system is robust." One father not only took her into his son's bedroom, but offered to open the wardrobe and show her his clothes. "I'm just glad you're checking," he said.

"It's something I'm quite passionate about, the home address," Mrs Newbold says. "What you must think about is the child who lives round the corner from a school, but hasn't got a place - the child who's number one on the waiting list. Also, the fact that you haven't caused this situation. The parent has caused it."


"That's really good," says Rebecca Taylor. She smiles broadly into the phone receiver. "I'd recommend you just go ahead and accept the place. Yes, thank you. Goodbye."

She puts down the phone and takes a swig from her cup of tea. Then she pulls a face and puts it down again. "Cold. That's the third cup of tea someone's brought me today, and I haven't been able to drink any."

Miss Taylor has been working in the admissions office since October, when she transferred from elsewhere in the council's education service. "I was expecting lots of angry people," she says. "So it's been a bit of a shock - I've had some really nice people. Lots of happy people; lots of tears of happiness. Lots of people grateful for my help."

Her latest call was from a mother whose child had been offered a place at her first-choice grammar. The woman reacted initially with disbelieving silence. Then she burst out laughing, repeating the word "really?" over and over again.

"The nicest was yesterday - a father who phoned up and said he'd been up all night," Miss Taylor says. The man had made himself ill with worry that his daughter's online application had not been submitted properly. Miss Taylor searched for the application on the system: the daughter had secured a place at a grammar school.

"He absolutely exploded," she says. "He was saying, `Thank you, thank you, thank you so much. You've made my day.' And I thought, `You've made mine.' I went home in a good mood. I was expecting to be absolutely exhausted and really down. But I wasn't."

Next to her, Geraldine Fisher grimaces and leans back in her chair. She, too, is a recent arrival in admissions: she has been working here for the past three months. Yesterday, she picked up the phone to a frustrated father, furious that other parents had already received their admissions results, while he had not. She patiently explained that his application had not been submitted online, and therefore he would have to wait an additional day for his results.

The father coolly informed her that this was not possible: he would be going on holiday early the next morning. "I said I'm sorry," Mrs Fisher says. "Maybe he could make arrangements for someone else to pick up the letter." The father's voice became louder, his tone more aggressive. He demanded to speak to a supervisor. "He got rather abusive," says Mrs Fisher. "He was trying to bully me. You feel cross that someone can treat you like that."

Eventually, Mrs Newbold offered to speak to the man. After almost a decade in the department, she is now fairly nonchalant about such phone calls. "You'd be surprised at the number of people who are flying out on holiday the day the results come out," she says. "And there seem to be a lot of life-saving operations happening on 2 March.

"It would be tragic if it was true. But I just don't believe it."


A colleague knocks at Mrs Newbold's door and hands her a paper bag. "I brought you a sandwich," she says. Mrs Newbold has just finished leaving a voicemail message for Mrs Fisher's angry father; now she eyes the bag with an edge of desperation. "Bread. I need bread." She has not had a break for more than seven hours.

"My predecessor had a heart attack," she says. "Actually, my two predecessors had heart attacks. Every person I interview for a job here, I say, `This is an emotive subject. It can be stressful.' You get into the zone with the parents.

"Of course, it can be demoralising when you take two or three calls and they're all shouting at you. But I try to engender a caring environment."

She is about to pop out to Tesco for a box of cakes; there will be collective staff drinks when Friday night comes.

Denise Palmer, meanwhile, has already booked the following week off work. She takes her phone off the hook for a moment and leans back in her seat. "I'm going away next weekend," she says. "It wasn't deliberate - it just happened that way - but ooh, yes. Have a rest."

Elsewhere in the council, the preconception is that the admissions team really only works between October, when applications are received, and March, when decisions are announced. In fact, work begins in July, when parents receive their school-preference form. Each secondary will then hold an open evening, and members of the admissions team attend each one, bringing along a large map to illustrate that school's catchment for the past three years. Staff advise parents to be as ambitious as they want with their first five choices, but to ensure that they also include one local community school on the form.

Ninety-five per cent of Birmingham children are offered a place at one of their six preferred schools; of the remaining 5 per cent, most listed unrealistic choices on their application forms. For example, there was the couple who named the same grammar school six times over, in the hope that this would mean their child was six times more likely to get in. "Sometimes they don't listen," Mrs Palmer says. "Then parents will say, `I've made a mistake. I should have listened to the local authority. Now my child is suffering.'"

To these parents, she will read out the list of schools where places are still available. "We tell them to go and look at the school, go online," says Mrs Newbold. "We steer away from telling them to look at Ofsted reports or league tables. You will not find a league table in this office. And we will never recommend one school over another, because what's right for one may not be right for another. People will say, `Is that a good school?' But that's not my area."

In the days and weeks after 2 March, some parents will choose to take their children out of the maintained sector, thus freeing up waiting-list places. And with every waiting-list place offered, a place becomes available at another school. On average, around 2,000 places will be offered as a result of waiting-list re-jigging.

And then there are the appeals. Last year, 800 parents pursued their appeal beyond the initial knee-jerk threat. The strength of individual cases varies: some parents' sole grounds for appeal will be "but Johnny really wants to go to the same school as his best friend". On average, around 5 per cent are successful. Mrs Newbold's team will then need to field calls from headteachers wanting to know where, exactly, they are expected to find the desks, books and teaching staff to cater for extra pupils.

Waiting-list reshuffling and appeals inevitably go on through the summer term, at which point the whole process begins again.


Mr Tees is heading down the council building's ornate staircase. In one hand, he holds a clutch of letters, print-outs and official documents. "I'm off to see a parent," he says. He takes a deep breath. "You can understand how it is - they want to see someone in person, to know that it's not just a faceless person they're dealing with. I can understand people wanting to feel they've done everything they can for their child."

Each member of the admissions staff must undertake reception duty, meeting parents who turn up at the council building unannounced, hoping to speak to someone about their child's offer. In the past two days, 48 parents have turned up; staff are expecting around 200 in total. "Oh, we have loads, loads of them," says Mrs Newbold. "There can be queues out the door."

On one occasion, when Mrs Newbold was on reception duty, she came down to find an angry father. He began by yelling at her; she attempted to placate him, and to explain the situation. "I'm not interested in your explanations," he snapped back, and started to raise his fist.

"He's going to hit me. He's going to hit me," Mrs Newbold thought. Out loud, desperate to defuse the situation, she said: "Shall we sit back down? Can I get you a glass of water?"

Since then, she has requested signs in the reception area stating that physical threats against staff will not be tolerated. And she includes a question on dealing with angry parents as part of her staff interview process. "This job almost comes with a public-health warning," she says. "It's an emotional subject, but it shouldn't get personal."


"No, your daughter isn't on the waiting list for that school," Mrs Newbold says. "It was her fourth preference, and she's been offered her place at her second-preference school. That's why."

She is back at her desk, phone cradled under her head. In front of her, her desk is stacked with neat piles of paper. Outside, darkness is closing in. "She's changed her mind?" she says into the phone. "Yes, we could put her on the waiting list for her fourth-choice school if you want. Yes, we can do that. Yes, you can call us next week. We'll let you know if anything's changed. Of course. Goodbye."

She hangs up, and begins to type her notes. Then the phone rings again. It is the would-be holidaymaker who previously bullied Mrs Fisher, returning the voicemail message left earlier.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," he begins. His words are audible from elsewhere in the room. "You're a disgrace. You make out like you're trying to help people, but you don't. I don't know how you're able to sleep at night."

The man is furious, ranting. "I'm not going to put the phone down on him," Mrs Newbold tells herself. Instead: "I'm here to offer advice and guidance," she says into the phone. "But I'm not here to be shouted at. I'm trying to help you."

She is slightly shaken as she hangs up. "You try your absolute best to help people. You spend the whole day trying to help people. But you just have to put the aggressive ones to the back of your mind. Remember all those calls you've dealt with, all those parents you've helped. You've helped them to understand the process, advised them what to do next. But, yes. All of us go home emotionally drained."

She finishes typing up her notes and glances at her watch. It is 6.50pm; she has been at work for almost 12 hours. She logs out of the system and goes home.


On 1 and 2 March each year, more than half a million 11-year-olds in England are offered a place at one of their local secondaries.

In 2010, 83.2 per cent of families received an offer of a place at their first choice school; 94.9 per cent got an offer at one of their top three. This was a slight increase - 0.3 percentage points - on the previous year.

Only 3.4 per cent of families did not receive an offer from any of their preferred schools.

Data on the number of appeals for places in 2010-11 is not yet available. But in the previous year, 50,200 appeals were launched, of which 37,830 were heard by a panel - 5.9 per cent of all new admissions. Some 12,600 were successful - a third of all appeals heard.

More than 5,600 secondaries nationally - including academies, voluntary- aided schools and foundation schools - set their own admissions policies, rather than having them determined by the local authority. These schools must then publish their policies online. But, last year, more than half of such secondaries failed to post details online before the 1 May deadline, leaving themselves further open to challenges and appeals from parents.

The TES recently reported that the number of complaints about secondaries' admissions arrangements more than doubled in 2010 compared with the previous year.

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