In part two of our investigation into the admissions ordeal at Jewish schools, Caron Kemp hears how parents can make the best of a stressful situation
To read part one CLICK HERE.
It has been described as a ‘level playing field’ in which everyone is ‘equally disadvantaged’. But, in reality, applying for and attaining a place at a Jewish secondary school is daunting, stressful and fraught with complexities.
Each year, in the September prior to a pupil’s transfer to secondary school, parents have a window of approximately six weeks to apply via their local council to a maximum of six educational establishments of their choosing, in order of preference.
The following March, they are informed by their local education authority which school has been allocated to their child. However, for parents wishing to send their offspring to one of the highly regarded and immensely oversubscribed Jewish schools, March often marks the start of a long and difficult journey.
“The admissions process does seem very much like a lottery,” admits Sinai’s deputy headteacher Juliette Lipshaw. “We have had to deal with increasing numbers of disappointed parents who perhaps did not get their first choice of school, or in fact any Jewish school, if that is their preference, until the final rounds. “
Last year, two of our 90 pupils did not get either of the schools of their choice and therefore had to make other provisions.” So where exactly does the problem lie? According to incoming executive director of the Partnerships for Jewish Schools, Rabbi David Meyer, the private school application process makes everything more complicated. “
While there is transparency with state school applicants, anyone applying to private schools has a different time frame and we don’t know if they have accepted a place,” he explains. “So you could have someone holding a place at both a state school and a private school and then only much later release the state school place, which creates a backlog.”
The intrinsically autonomous nature of private schools grants them the freedom to offer places at will, rather than coordinating with the state school national offers day, and they are under no obligation to make public their decisions. However, while recognising that parents can take advantage of this loophole and bide their time with two school places being held in their child’s name, this is certainly not the sole problem. “
As the system stands, a child is only allowed to be offered one state school,” explains Hasmonean admissions officer Tammy Meduna-Scott. “This is why the boroughs are involved, to ensure parents don’t hold on to multiple school places. “This means they have to hold onto a place until they get a higher preference school. And if that higher preference never becomes available, their child will still have a place somewhere.”
“I have spoken to parents in both situations. Some are honest about it and they have a right to keep the place offered, even if it isn’t their first choice. They often feel bad about keeping another child from having their first preference but they are afraid.”
Undoubtedly there is great fear among parents that their child will be unsuccessful altogether, but their anxiety is not unfounded. “There is a distinct lack of transparency in the whole process,” conveys one angry mother, who wanted to remain anonymous.”
“While the councils give out the places, the schools determine their own admissions criteria and they are both unfair and inconsistent. Why do some places have feeder schools when all children could be given that security and why are some schools admitting people on distance and others picking names out of a hat? It simply isn’t fair and it’s our children who are suffering as a result.
So, is it fair that some Jewish primary schools are given priority entry to their local Jewish secondary school? “We have feeder schools to enable children from Hertfordshire to get into a Hertfordshire school,” clarifies Yavneh College’s admissions chairman Bradley Raphael.
“This principle was established when the school was started. Not all children from the two feeder schools apply for, or accept, places at Yavneh.”
And his sentiment is echoed by Lipshaw. “The schools that are feeders for secondary schools are lucky as they are able to offer stability for their pupils, who still have the option to go elsewhere if they so choose,” she concludes.
Yet she does recognise room for improvement. “I think it would be a good idea to make all Jewish primary schools feeders. Surely it would be of mutual benefit to secure places in the long run.”
And what about the discrepancies between schools’ admissions codes? Perhaps the most controversial is JFS’ random allocation system, where names are effectively drawn from a hat. But headteacher Jonathan Miller is confident that this is the best method.
“Since JFS is a school for the whole Jewish community, we prefer not to use distance from the school as our final tiebreak. We believe the system of random allocation to be the fairest way of allocating places,” he says.
And little comfort though it might be, the problem is not wholly contained to the Jewish educational world. “Secondary school admission is generally stressful for children and parents,” explains a spokesperson for Barnet Council’s schools admissions team.
“Some schools remain more popular for a variety of reasons other than religious ethos, particularly academic performance. The intense demand for certain schools inevitably means that some parents will be disappointed.”
So what advice can be offered to parents about to embark on the process? “I recognise that it’s not a perfect situation but the schools’ hands are really tied by government legislation, so there is very little, if anything, that they can do,” admits Rabbi Meyer.
“It is a totally level playing field where everyone is equally disadvantaged. “People must remember that not being offered a place in the first round is in no way a slight or a reflection of the school’s attitude towards the parents. If we had it our way we would offer places to everybody.” And Meduna-Scott is equally understanding.
“This process takes time and it can be bureaucratic, but the majority of the time it all gets worked out in the end,” she says.
“And if you do decide to accept a different school, especially if it is an independent school, please make sure both the school and your borough are aware as soon as possible so that another child on the waiting list can be offered that place.”