Crowded out by popular demand

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Popular schools should be allowed to expand. Money should follow children. Parents must have freedom of choice. We hear the rhetoric but has anyone thought through the implications?

Our first school, with a two-class entry, is 25-years-old. It has always been popular because of the quality of its education, but recently this has created great problems.

Estate agents have used its catchment area as a selling point. Some parents rent a home in the catchment area to get their children in and then move to a more appropriate house. Others register the children from relatives' addresses. This year the number of children who want to enrol is greater than the admission number, ensuring that class sizes will be more than 33.

Several years ago - being aware of this trend - the governors, in full consultation with staff, unanimously decided that they didn't want to expand. There were many practical considerations: extra classrooms could only be provided by converting the dining hall; the school hall and playground were not large enough to take all the children at once. More importantly, everyone felt that an increase in size would be detrimental to the school's ethos and values.

Two years ago the governors proposed that the catchment area be reduced. Detailed proposals were drawn up, taking into account distance from school, maintenance of a social balance and natural geographical boundaries. It was a complex exercise as the proposals would affect four neighbouring first, middle and combined schools.

Then the bubble burst. Word reached the press that our catchment area might be reduced and a few parents began to object vociferously. The county council, which is the only body empowered to make these changes, backed away from even starting the formal consultation procedures.

Our school was then told it would have to accept more children and that our admission number would be temporarily increased. We protested that, as not all neighbouring schools were full, the county could not justify spending Pounds 65,000 on expanding the first school and a further Pounds 35,000 on the adjoining middle school which would become heir to our additional intake. Our protest had no impact.

We have had a solution imposed on us that leaves no one happy. The governors and staff fear the expansion will have an adverse effect on the quality of education that they have always been proud of.

Neighbouring schools will lose more pupils as children out of our catchment area will be admitted to ensure that we have large enough classes to balance our funding. Community charge payers will have to fund Pounds 100,000 of unnecessary building work. Homeowners in what was our catchment area could even find the value of their properties dropping.

The children will have to cope with being in an overcrowded school. But the policy will have been implemented - the popular school will expand, money will follow the children and parents will have freedom of choice. At what cost!

Elizabeth Forster is governor of a first school in Buckinghamshire.

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