By Mark Berg, Director Phab Communications Ltd
What would you do about a system that makes good honest people act in a selfish, dishonest and disreputable manner?
Of course you’d want to change it.
So what am I on about?
I am talking about our schools admissions system. It’s wrong. It’s not just a bit wrong – but very wrong.
It allows those parents who aspire to get their children into private schools to hold on to places at state schools as a back-up for as long as they like.
It forces parents to present themselves as enthusiasts for schools that are not in fact their first choice, creating difficulties for the schools, as children drop out at the last minute when their first choice suddenly becomes available.
It even allows parents to hold on to school places they then relinquish when their child doesn’t make it into the desired stream.
In each of these cases, the actions of the parents prolong the agony of those whose child has received no offer from a Jewish school at all.
In two successive years, we’ve been parents of a Year 6 child trying to find a place at the best school. It has been our ticket to a roller-coaster of anxiety.
I don’t play the lottery, but I had to play the secondary-school version because I wanted my children to go to JFS as their first choice.
JFS is a great school and, unsurprisingly, it’s over-subscribed. It has clear admissions criteria, and in the case of both of my children, there was no sibling shoo-in, nor do we live close to Kingsbury, nor were there any educational or social reasons why my children should jump the queue.
In went their names into the hat, or whichever repository they use, for the first round of offers.
In a scrupulously-fair way, monitored by the local educational authority, names are drawn out to fill the available places, but they weren’t the names of my kids.
Not on the first round anyway.
My daughter was already feeling rather battered having been rejected by JCoSS, the supposedly-inclusive Jewish school, before the first round of offers was even under way. Her crime? Being out of the age bracket for Year 7.
An August born-child, she had moved schools in Year 2 and repeated the year. JCoSS refused point blank to admit her to Year 7 but said she could apply for a place in Year 8.
Yes, you read that correctly. How many parents would have taken up that suggestion? Thankfully, JCoSS was not our first choice.
My daughter was offered a place at JFS in round 2, around a month after the initial offers had been made. We were joyous.
Then something completely unexpected happened. She received an offer the very next day from the theatre school she’d auditioned for and which she now attends.
It was the right decision for her, given her special talents, but it was made with a heavy heart because with a system that favours siblings we knew the decision was against the interests of our son who would be applying the following year.
The heavy heart turned out to be entirely warranted. Our son’s application specified JFS and Hasmonean schools in that order.
Brent, in its wisdom, offered us Newman Catholic College, which I turned down immediately, not wishing to deprive a Catholic child of the school of his or her choice.
What now for our son? We just had to sit it out. Round 2 came and went, then Round 3.
Now I was seriously worried. What should we do as we stared at the prospect of having no school at all for our son in September? We had no private school plan B.
I turned my attention to Hasmonean. The kind admissions officer heard my genuine anguish and told me the school had been very over-subscribed.
We would have to wait for further rounds of offers to be made and hopefully when some parents holding Hasmonean places got their first choices they would release their places.
Painfully slowly, my son edged his way up the queue. Then, as he’d got to about fourth in line, we were told the school couldn’t allocate any more places unless the local authority gave permission to create more places.
I was advised to lodge an appeal, which I did, immediately drawing upon the support of three rabbis – the head teacher of my son’s primary school, his kodesh teacher and our community rabbi.
They all went to bat for my son, vouching for him and for the family. They were amazing. As the day of the appeal drew near, the long-awaited call came from the admissions officer at Hasmonean.
My son had reached the front of the waiting list; they could offer him a place. We were overjoyed.
No Catholic school, no desperate attempt to get him into Immanuel. Our luck was finally in.
I couldn’t thank those involved enough: The admissions officer; the aforementioned rabbis; the head of Year 7 at Hasmonean, who made a special trip back to my son’s primary school to meet him.
A happy ending then?
Well, not quite.
While we were getting used to the idea of our son going to Hasmonean, we’d put out of our minds, and out of our son’s mind, any prospect of him getting into JFS.
He was happy with Hasmonean, he had good friends there, so why make him feel that we were anything but 100 percent committed to the school?
That commitment, although engendered by our circumstances, came to feel totally genuine.
Weeks later, out of the blue, I received a phone call from JFS to inform me a place had become available there.
Not only that, but the induction evening for new parents of Year 7 students at JFS was that night. I was urged to go along and to pick up the offer letter.
That night my wife and I pondered our dilemma.
We had put JFS first choice for sound reasons but the exposure to Hasmonean had definitely won our hearts and we owed a debt of gratitude to those who had gone to great lengths to secure us a place.
We tossed and turned all night and next morning posted the acceptance to JFS.
As bad as we felt, we knew we had to act in our son’s (and his two younger brothers’) best interests.
So why lay bare my experiences?
First, I’m troubled by having to conduct myself in ways that don’t sit well with my conscience. But, more importantly, I want to open up a debate about the schools admissions system.
If you’ve also been a victim of the system or if you have constructive ideas of how to reform it, I urge you to write to Jewish News.
Things will change only if there’s enough of a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the current system and if there’s a better alternative.
As a community, we are blessed with first-rate schools.
What we need now is an admissions system that matches their excellence.