Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ash Green Primary School Catchment

On 18/4/13 the Stoke-on-Trent City Council Children Young People's Overview and ScrutinyCommittee, chaired by Cllr Dave Conway, considered the call in, by Cllrs Terry Follows and Peter Hayward (Hanford and Trentham) and Cllr Glenys Ward (Blurton East), of the Cabinet decision of 28/3/13 on school admissions.  The call in requested that the catchments of Ash Green, Priory and Newstead primary schools are reconsidered.

I observed the meeting and report on it, with extra comments of my own given in italics.

Cllr Ann James declared an interest because a family member works at a primary school and Cllr Terry Follows declared an interest as governor at Ash Green and Priory.

I don't have any personal interest beyond a strong motivation towards my own local community. I am at the time of writing secretary of Ash Green & Pacific Road Residents' Association, but my own children are now in post-16 and higher education.

I am interested in education in the city, concerned about pupil places, have done my own analysis and asked a public question at the 20/12/12 full council on this.  I have also asked about catchment at the 6/9/12 full council.

Paul Gerrard, the strategic manager for admissions, talked about the school admissions report that Cabinet had approved. This had included no primary catchment changes but some changes in Pupil Admission Numbers (PANs). He said school admissions are reviewed annually and the future can be considered but there are financial constraints on what can be done in any one year. He said there had been a request from Ash Green and Pacific Road Residents' Association to change the Ash Green catchment back to what it used to be some years ago (before it was changed without consultation) by including the whole Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop and roads off, but this displacement would mean moving capital and adding an extra area to Ash Green is hard as the school is full. Cllrs Terry Follows' and Peter Hayward's report considered at the meeting indicates that such a change would have no cost, improve social cohesion and show local residents that their views matter. Paul said the trigger to consider catchment changes is schools being unable to provide places for applications within catchment received on time and that trigger has not yet happened. A residents' association request is apparently not an official trigger.

Ash Green's catchment includes vacant land on which housing is likely to be built, at Trentham Lakes next to the existing recent housing estate and at Wedgwood, but this is not an issue for the 2014 intake as planning is in the early stages. By 2015 there will be an increase in demand for primary places across the city by 8%. I honestly think that when developers wish to build a significant housing estate they should be required to provide a school with it. A new primary school on Trentham Lakes would make for a nice community there with short walks to school.

Much of Paul Gerrard's presentation concerned school PANs (note that the Ash Green and Pacific Road request only concerned catchment, not PANs). Sutherland primary academy had considered reducing their PAN from 75 to 60 and the council had reacted by asking other primary governing bodies whether their schools could expand. Ash Green and Priory had wished their PANs to remain at 60 each but Newstead expressed an interest to increase from 30 to 60 and as it gained an 'outstanding' Ofsted rating in January, capital funds can be accessed. Paul referred to localised birth rate data, which were not presented to the meeting, that show decreases within Ash Green and Priory catchments but increases within Sutherland and Newstead catchments. That's all very well but the data we were actually given shows 2012 admissions of 66 at Ash Green for a PAN of 60, 64 at Priory for a PAN of 60, but only 25 at Newstead for a PAN of 30 and 69 at Sutherland for a PAN of 75, with not too dissimilar results in previous years.

Cllr Terry Follows reiterated 'wearing different hats' as he is a governor at Ash Green and Priory but also has a duty to represent residents. He said Ash Green has always been full, he remembers 21 appeals one year. He said residents had felt cheated since the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop had been taken out of Ash Green's catchment without consultation. Too true! That point is key. He said the Trentham Lakes estate was put into Ash Green's catchment to raise the value of the houses, despite the area being in Blurton West and Newstead ward. The Wedgwood development has plans going in this year and includes executive housing up to £800,000. If they couldn't get places at Ash Green there would be children from there going over the border to Stafford Borough, taking money out of Stoke-on-Trent Council. He pointed out that Priory catchment includes new housing being built at Primrose Hill in Hanford. Terry was particularly annoyed that he and Cllr Peter Hayward had had meetings with senior officers that were not referred to in the report to Cabinet despite assurances that they would be taken into account. He also said it was illogical to be increasing the PAN at Newstead when it is not reaching its existing PAN. He said he could understand if that is the only way to get money out of the government but the catchment should be increased along with the PAN.

Paul Gerrard pointed out that the admissions report is for 2014 only and it is likely that other primaries could be academies after that, then they all decide their own admissions and catchments are less relevant. This is a problem with academies and we have that with high schools anyway. It is worse if there aren't enough schools or they are in the wrong place. They will tend to have a distance criterion but families not living close to any schools will be a long way down the list for admission to all of them and can end up without a place at any school anywhere near them. On the plus side perhaps it may be easier for communities to persuade their local academy to adopt sensible admission criteria to serve them. Paul also said as catchments become less relevant admissions will be about preferences! This gets my goat, but Cllr Ann James expressed my thoughts on this later.

Cllr Alastair Watson asked, given that Ash Green is full, why isn't it rated as 'outstanding' as Newstead is? Paul Gerrard explained that Ash Green is 'good' under a previous definition but has not had an Ofsted inspection since the definitions changed so has had no chance yet to attain a current 'outstanding'.

Cllr Ann James thought that there was an agreement with the local authority on admissions when schools convert to academies, otherwise we would have serious problems.  Too right!  But Paul Gerrard confirmed that whilst academies work with local authorities, they get to choose and only have to follow national admissions requirements.  There are no rules on where they may choose catchments. He said parental preference overcomes catchment issues! But Ann pointed out that what we are saying is "sorry, you don't have a preference"! The local authority only has a duty to provide any school place, it doesn't even have to be within walking distance if transport is provided. Ann asked; if Ash Green and Priory convert to academies but don't want to increase numbers, what happens to the rest of the children? Paul said the agreement on the number of places is between the school and the Department for Education in central government.

Cllr Terry Follows was surprised that Sutherland, an outstanding school, would want to downsize. Paul Gerard then stated they have not formally gone ahead with this!

Cllr Dave Conway expressed some doubts with regard to data as some years ago it was said that we needed fewer schools. He said if we assume young people getting married are not having children then we end up in serious trouble! Paul Gerrard said predictions are now based on actual data over a short time scale, some years ago schools were got rid of because of inadequate buildings but now if there is demand high quality building is supplied and there is a high success rate for first preferences. Dave also asked Cllr Alan Dutton as Cabinet member for education about the meetings and assurances Cllrs Terry Follows and Peter Hayward had been given but Alan said he wasn't at the meetings so can't comment and the Cabinet considered the offices' report. There was dispute over whether an increased PAN at Newstead had been mentioned at the meetings, Terry said it had not while Paul said it had. I was at the first meeting but not the second and took notes which I copied to Alan. There is mention of Newstead but not of increasing the PAN.

Eileen Rogan asked whether Ash Green or Priory have given concerns over standards as a reason not to expand but no clear answer was given.

Cllr Ann James wished to refocus the discussion on catchment rather than numbers because basically families have had this altered and simply want it back. Well said.

Cllr Dave Conway suggested to Cllr Alan Dutton that the Cabinet had not considered the issue in depth. I observed that Cabinet meeting and there was no discussion whatsoever on this, they just approved the officers' report. Alan responded that it was all in the report and confirmed that the PAN at Sutherland is not now decreasing! So, decisions were made on the basis of a downsizing that is not happening and they don't see a need to review the decision?

Cllr Majid Khan said if Ash Green and Priory become academies the issues won't be relevant.

Reverend David Lingwood asked if there were children from the area that is requested to move back into Ash Green's catchment who are not getting into Ash Green. Paul Gerrard said that not one parent has written in about this issue, there are disappointments but there are non-catchment successes. This I think is rather unfair and doesn't reveal the full situation. When the catchment was unfairly moved in the first place people did complain but got nowhere. We  investigated how residents could have a say in catchment areas but were told it was a decision made by the council in discussion with the schools. There isn't a defined mechanism for communities to input into this. So the residents' association has had meetings with the council and decided a good route would be for our elected councillors to act on our behalf rather than encourage individuals to contact the council. This is why our councillors are so concerned about the meetings they have had and what notice is being taken of them, they are representing us but seem to fail to get through to Cabinet.

Now Reverend David Lingwood's question is one I have asked and not got an answer to. For 2012 there were 82 first choice applicants for Ash Green for 60 places. 66 places
were allocated, so at least 16 first choice applicants were disappointed, but we do not know what areas these are from. Paul Gerrard says there are non-catchment successes and his statistics show 6 of these. But, the numbers also show 66 catchment, local authority care (LAC) and special educational needs (SEN) applications. So it looks like the non-catchment successes are LAC/SEN and children who live with their parents and have no SEN statements haven't got a snowball's chance in hell of getting in if they are outside catchment.

Cllr Shaun Pender expressed concern that if the PAN was increased for Ash Green it could give false hope to the community if it then became an academy and reduced the PAN again.

Cllr Karen Clarke said surely the school had agreed the admissions report but Cllr Terry Follows reiterated that he is representing residents.

Paul Gerrard summed up saying the consultation had been thorough and the data do not support the call-in recommendations.

Cllr Terry Follows said that surely the Trentham Lakes land not yet built on could move to Newstead or Sutherland to prevent further future problems, especially if Newstead is expanding. As Ash Green is full, even being in catchment may not help and the new Trentham Lakes development on straight line rules, despite the railway, would have priority over some existing communities particularly in the New Park estate in South Trentham and over the new Wedgwood development.

Cllr Terry Follows summed up and requested that the Cabinet continue with admission arrangements for 2014 with the exception of Ash Green, Priory and Newstead and the catchment areas for these three schools are reconsidered in light of the full facts.

Cllr Ann James moved the motion suggested by Cllr Terry Follows and Cllr Dave Conway seconded it. Their two votes were in favour but there were 7 votes against.

I will sum up with a few thoughts of my own.

Ash Green primary school was originally built to serve an area of Trentham around it which included the whole of the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop. It should continue to do so.

The key important point to make is that the catchment area for Ash Green was changed to exclude most of the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop, WITHOUT CONSULTATION, some years ago. People, including from the school itself, objected at that time but were ignored. This is a wrong that should be put right!

Whilst catchment is just one criterion that is considered when allocating school places and people outside catchment are free to apply, the fact that primary schools are so oversubscribed means that it can be very difficult to get a place in a school from outside catchment, this is why catchment becomes so important, especially now with increasing numbers of primary children.

Priory is a Church of England faith school. Generally they would draw from a wide area on the basis of faith, to serve that faith community. If they end up having to fill up with families in their current catchment who prefer Ash Green but cannot get a place there, not only do those families not get their first choice, but it also reduces the chances for families wanting a place at Priory on faith grounds. Whilst some families prefer a faith school, others have a strong conviction for a non-faith school and their wishes should be treated on at least equal grounds to those of faith.

If the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop were returned to Ash Green's catchment, those in the area choosing Ash Green would almost certainly get a place at Ash Green on catchment and distance grounds. Those in the area choosing Priory would almost certainly get a place at Priory on faith or distance grounds. This would result in MORE local families getting their first choice of school, which is after all a goal of the council's own admissions policy. So if they make the suggested change they would BETTER achieve their OWN aims.

As Ash Green is so oversubscribed, it makes sense to move those areas in its catchment which are not currently built upon to catchments of neighbouring schools with more places.

New schools or increasing PANs can help, subject to consultation and sufficient infrastructure and resourcing, but increasing the PAN at Newstead without a change in the Ash Green catchment does nothing whatsoever to help families on the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop currently outside catchment, to access Ash Green. There is no logic to the council's admission report in this respect. We could end up with families in Ash Green's catchment but much further from Ash Green and nearer to Newstead getting places at Ash Green by virtue of catchment, whilst families on the Pacific Road / Constance Avenue loop could be allocated places at Newstead which is a long distance from them, past Ash Green, causing more traffic congestion and against the concept of safe walking routes to school. Again, it would not comply well with the policy of families getting places at their LOCAL school.

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