Set For lIfe?

8th September 2017

As hundreds of eleven-year-olds tackle the South West Hertfordshire Consortium’s academic test this weekend, Lisa Botwright offers some advice for parents facing the perils and pitfalls of secondary school admissions…

In some far-flung Utopia there are senior schools with a strong academic record, and a warm and caring yet disciplined ethos, within walking distance of every home; and if one’s not right for any reason, families can take their pick of any of their surrounding successful educational settings.

Back in the real world – in this corner of the country, certainly – there’s a deficit of good school places, and an excess of unnecessary anxiety for many people over the entire applications process.
Perhaps I’m taking an extreme view, but it’s borne out by experience. A few years ago, I lived in an area where the local secondary school was judged by Ofsted as a mediocre ‘satisfactory’, and where ‘outstanding’ schools shimmered enticingly on the horizon, available to only a select few. My neighbours and I bristled with middle class fortitude, and plotting to get our children into these slightly further afield schools dominated dinner party conversation. My eldest was only six or seven at the time.

When we later moved to a Hertfordshire village with a large and popular academy on its doorstep (a fact not entirely unconnected, as you can imagine), I couldn’t believe how dramatically the tension lifted.

This postcode lottery of school allocations is shocking, and the reason why house prices close to desirable schools are rocketing. Richard Harrington, Conservative MP for Watford, recognises that further investment is needed, but declares that over 3,500 school places are already being created in Watford alone, “thanks to Government investment in buildings and new schools”.

Westfield Academy has just undergone a £20million rebuild; both Frances Combe and Garston Manor in North Watford have been enlarged in the last couple of years, and funding has been secured for a new school for Croxley Green: Croxley Danes, which has just opened, albeit at a temporary site within sister school St Clement Danes in Chorleywood.

It doesn’t help that you ‘need a PhD to decode admissions policy’ rages one mother, who lives in Rickmansworth. It’s definitely confusing – and, unusually for an area that’s supposedly committed to comprehensive education (as opposed to the old-fashioned grammar school system that remains in nearby Buckinghamshire) postcodes aren’t always the deciding factor. In some schools, there’s an academic allocation, in some you can apply if your child is musical or sporty, or even, in the case of one Bushey school, if your child has an aptitude for all things technical. Hence the anxious plotting.

The worst thing you can do when applying for a school is just to pick your top four, cross your fingers, and then hope for the best. Last year, 641 children living in Hertfordshire were allocated secondary schools they didn’t rank. The local authority has a responsibility to match children up with a school-place, but won’t necessarily place them in one of their ranked settings unless they meet the criteria.

My lightbulb moment about understanding the process came in conversation with the kind and helpful, but clearly very busy, Admissions Officer at Watford Grammar for Girls. She explained that each choice submitted to the local authority (you can select up to four schools in Hertfordshire) is examined, in strict order of preference, to see if it matches up with admissions policy. ‘School one – do you meet the criteria? No… on to school two…’ and so on. In this way, it’s okay to list a couple of ‘wildcards’, but it’s also essential to include a couple of schools your child has a realistic chance of getting into, otherwise you could be offered anywhere vaguely close to you that has places left. Similarly, there’s no point in making so-called ‘tactical choices’ about rankings; be honest about the order of your favourite schools, since your child will get into the first one on the list that ticks all the boxes.

So what are those boxes that need to be ticked? What exactly is the criteria for entry to local senior schools? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. It’s absolutely essential to check the admissions policy of each school you’re interested in, since they vary so widely.

Some schools weight their allocations on distance, or to younger siblings of current families; others apportion purely on academic attainment (Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb springs to mind). Others make their offers based on a mind-boggling mix of specialist and community criteria (see ‘Decoding the Admissions Section of a School Website’, below).

You may also be considering the private route at this critical time in your child’s educational life, and we are lucky in this area to have a number of incredible independent schools – but remember that entry is no less competitive or time specific. To stand the best possible chance overall, you’ll need to apply to both kinds of schools in tandem. If you’re new to the private school system, it can be slightly intimidating making the initial approach, but don’t let this put you off. The person in charge of applications in an independent school is known as the Registrar, and it’s their job to make you feel as welcome and informed as possible. You can book in for an individual tour with them or another senior member of staff, or go along to one of their published open days – a visit is definitely advisable to get a feel for the place. Look online or chat with the Registrar to find out more about possible bursaries (financial assistance based on need) or scholarships (financial assistance based on talent in a particular area).

The applications process can be tricky, possibly stressful, but the most important thing is to try not to communicate this to your child: otherwise, if they don’t get into a particular school, they may feel you’re disappointed in them, when in fact you’re disappointed with the system. Remember that all the evidence points to family background and individual mindset being the crucial factors for future success, much more so than which school a child attends. In any social circle, there’ll be numerous examples of children becoming incredibly happy and motivated somewhere other than their first choice.

My daughter is a teenager now and is very happy in the school we moved to be near; but ironically we went through the upheaval of relocating unnecessarily, as her consortium test score (proud parent boast…) would have secured her a place in that elusive coveted school. Me? It was a long time ago, but I got into my first choice, and then fell out with the class ringleader. I spent the next five years wishing I’d gone to the school down the road, with another group of primary school friends.

I can’t help thinking that it’s not just a postcode lottery… it’s a life lottery.

Decoding the Admissions Section of a School Website…

There’s no getting out of rolling up your sleeves and familiarising yourself with the admissions policy of each of your chosen schools, but much of it is broadly similar: if you can understand how the admissions criteria works for one school, it makes it easier to understand the others. Here we take Watford Grammar School for Girls, one of the most popular schools in the area, as an example.

Click on the admissions section of their website, and you’ll see no less than nine big documents to wade through – just what every frazzled parent needs! So here’s what they include, and why you’d need to look at each one…

1. Consortium Testing Information

Watford Grammar School for Girls is part of the South West Herts Consortium (swhertsschools.org.uk), along with Bushey Meads, Rickmansworth, St Clement Danes, Parmiter’s, Queens’, Watford Grammar Schools for Boys and newcomer Croxley Danes. The schools collaborate to share exam data and avoid the need for multiple tests, which is admirable in principle, but in practice means another set of dates for families to remember. Broadly, you’ll need to apply to the consortium in the summer of Year 5, and to the local authority with your ranked schools at the beginning of Year 6. But do check your dates online.

2. Admissions Criteria

This is where most of the detailed information can be found. Although it’s written in pretty plain English, it still took me a couple of readings to absorb it all. Of the 180 places awarded to Year 7s for 2017 entry (this is an important distinction because the information can change year on year), 25% will be based on academic ability and 10% on musical aptitude: ie specialist places. The remainder are community places, including, for example, 10% awarded on distance – those living nearest to the school. There’s no specific ‘catchment’, though, just as there’s no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark; places simply go to the 18 children who live closest to the school, and the 45 children who score highest in the test.

3. SIF Form

Not only do you have to remember to apply to the consortium and to the local authority, you also need to send this form back to Watford Grammar directly. Schools with multiple admissions criteria require a Supplementary Information Form (SIF) that needs to be completed and sent off. Forget to do this at your peril.

4. Open Day Information

These take place in the autumn and there’s a lot of debate about when is the right time to start to visit potential schools. Some advise waiting until Year 6 but, personally, I think this is nonsense, especially since consortium applications take place in Year 5. While I sympathise with schools that have to valiantly cope with huge numbers of visitors, and need to minimise numbers, it’s such an important decision that if you want to go along in Year 4, 5 and 6, then do so. Who knows what will have changed since your last visit?

5. Appeals Information

Self-explanatory. Let’s hope this won’t be necessary.

6. FAQs

Lots of helpful information here.

7. Historical Information

Absolutely brilliant for decoding the consortium criteria, and a must-read if you’re applying to a consortium school. In 2012, the decision was made to issue test scores before the applications deadline in order to give parents more of a meaningful idea of whether their child is likely to get into a particular school. Since there’s no fixed academic/music pass mark, or catchment boundary, it’s impossible to gauge any kind of context without looking at the historical data for that school. So, in 2015, a mark of at least 250 for the academic test was required, but last year it was 216 (for those in the Watford area). You can also look up how close you need to live for a distance application (216 metres in 2015, 614 metres in 2017). Note: you can apply to a consortium school under as many different criteria as you like.

8. 2018 Admissions Criteria

As I said earlier, the information can change year on year, so rely on nothing you’ve read for 2017 in twelve months time.

9. Test Day Venue Details

You’ll be allocated a test venue and it can be any one of the consortium schools; there’s no flexibility to swap around. Don’t get too excited if your test centre matches your school preference, as the two definitely aren’t linked.

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