School places petition fails to budge councillors on bulge classes

Campaigners fighting for secondary school places near their homes made sure councillors heard messages from school children who will have to travel miles without their friends.

One parent, Anna Cole, spoke for the “Misplaced 62” – families whose children were not given a place at their catchment area schools Dorothy Stringer and Varndean – at a council meeting today (Thursday 25 March).

More than 2,400 people signed a petition presented to Brighton and Hove City Council calling for a review of the number of places available at the two schools.

This year Dorothy Stringer did not take a “bulge” class of an extra 30 pupils as it did for the past three years.

German Doner Kebab

Ms Cole said that there were seven secondary schools closer to her home than the one allocated to her son.

Ms Cole added that, after looking at the schools’ numbers, parents found that, as of March 2021, Dorothy Stringer had 1,668 students when it had room for 1,710.

Varndean was also due to be able to take more pupil numbers – 1,500 – once its building work was complete.

She said that parents did not understand why the council’s Schools Working Group had decided not to offer more places at the two schools.

Ms Cole read out statements from some 10 and 11-year-olds, telling councillors that they needed to understand how those children felt about missing out on going to their local school.

Florence, 11, said: “I’m sad and I cry a lot at the moment. I worry at night and I can’t sleep. I want to go to the same school as all my friends.

“It’s just up the road. I’m scared about going to a school where I don’t know anyone. I’m scared about having to get there on my own. I don’t understand, why me?”

George, 11, said: “I’m not great at socialising. I don’t make friends easily so the two best friends I do have are very important to me.

“I think differently to most children and I get a lot of support from them. They make me feel confident and less anxious.”

Enya, 11, said: “I feel isolated. Why am I being treated differently from my friends who practically live next to me?

“I’m extremely anxious and I don’t feel like I can handle nearly two hours on two different buses there and back. Please help me go to a local school.”

Green councillor Hannah Clare, who chairs the Children, Young People and Skills Committee, said that she understood that it was a distressing episode for families.

She said that the council had been talking with schools to find a long-term solution – but expanding numbers was not possible.

Councillor Clare said: “Taking everything into account, we believe that making the schools even bigger is not going to be the right thing for all our schools but especially for our children, especially in a year where issues of overcrowding have real implications for the health of pupils and staff.

“However, I do appreciate that for the young people and families involved, understanding why the decision has been taken offers small comfort, which is why I give my commitment that we will support every child who has been impacted by the decision.”

Councillor Hannah Clare

Conservative councillor Vanessa Brown said that she was very sorry the children had not secured places but there was no room for them as the council had already agreed jointly with the schools.

She said: “Particularly at this time with the pandemic, it would be wrong to try to crowd any more children into two already overcrowded schools.

“There is already too little space in communal areas, corridors, toilets, etc, which makes any attempts at social distancing very difficult.”

Councillor Brown said that increasing numbers at the two schools would be detrimental to other schools in the city, particularly the Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA), in Falmer, and Longhill High School, in Rottingdean.

She said that all of the secondary schools in Brighton and Hove had a “good” rating from the official education watchdog Ofsted.

Councillor Vanessa Brown

Labour councillor John Allcock said that, as a parent himself, he understood how families felt disappointed.

He said: “I am confident the children will receive a high-quality education at the school they’ve been allocated to, although I fully understand it will not feel like this currently.

“It is important the council takes responsibility for school allocation moving forward. I hope we will have a better balance going forward.”

Councillor John Allcock

Ms Cole used a “chat” feature to tell a virtual meeting of the full council that any additional support would not help children like her son. He faced an “adult” commute of 10 miles every day to and from a school without any of his friends.

Independent councillor Tony Janio criticised the council for doing nothing to help the children without a school place near their home. He said: “It’s a disgrace. I think the councillors need to get together. Sort it out!

“There’s a bulge going through. Primary school numbers are going down. It’s a temporary measure. Just get on, get the money and get the kids into a school.

“It won’t take much imagination from this miserable administration.”

Councillor Clare said that it was not possible.

The council agreed to note the petition.

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