Applying for school places out of normal age group: a farce in several acts

Back in July last year I blogged about the response I got from our first choice of school for the twins – it was a clear and simple “yes” from the head teacher that the school would support our request for the twins to start school in reception at age 5 (compulsory school age, CSA). I explained in a previous blog post why we wanted to do this. Our local authority (Birmingham City Council, BCC) allows us to put up to three schools down in order of preference on primary/infant school applications. I had considered only putting down our first choice, since we are highly unlikely to not get places due to sibling priority and the proximity of our address to school. But if I didn’t put down two more schools, and for some strange reason we weren’t allocated places at the first choice, then we could end up with places at a random school (or, worse still, schoolS) way out of our local area, and I thought it wasn’t worth the risk for the sake of a bit of extra admin on my behalf. I also wanted to get a feel for how easy it was to get approval for a CSA start in our local area, beyond just the one school, as it can be so variable nationally. Oh how I ended up going down a rabbit hole, which cost me more than a bit of extra admin time! However, I feel at least by blogging about my experience I can show how crazy the “system” (or rather lack thereof) is and hopefully help others who are trying to do the same.

So in September I emailed the other two most local schools – let’s call them School 2 and School 3 – with the same text that I had used in my email to School 1 previously. I got a fairly speedy reply from an office assistant at each school. It’s worth bearing in mind that both these schools are their own admissions authorities (rather than BCC) – School 2 is voluntary aided so the authority is the governing body (like School 1 is); School 3 is an academy, so the authority is the academy trust.  

School 2 said that they only become involved in requests for admissions out of normal age group once they have received applications via the BCC application form. I queried this because School 1 had been very willing to commit to a “yes” before application, and I explained that I didn’t want to waste a school’s time by applying to them if they were going to say “no”. She replied that they are not a school that refuses these requests, however she couldn’t guarantee the answer before reading our applications. OK…. fairly promising, I thought, but clearly the only way I’m getting an answer is to apply and see. So this could go down as our second choice.

School 3 said something pretty similar: if I’d like them to consider our request, I had to complete the reception application form as normal and return it to them with our request and any supporting information that I wished to be considered. Now I (wrongly) assumed that this meant the BCC application form – it turns out they have their own form as well (more on this below). So I figured it was worth putting this school as third choice, as any others would be getting too far away from home, except a fourth one that’s about the same distance away but which I already knew, from talking to neighbours with a summerborn child, wasn’t very knowledgable about CSA starts.

At this point I wasn’t entirely sure how I needed to go about requesting admission out of normal age group. Given what all the schools had said, I thought I needed to apply this year, have the requests approved (or not), and then reapply next year, rather than just not applying at all this year, but I couldn’t find an answer on the BCC website for how I actually had to submit our request in the application form. So I thought I’d email the BCC admissions team, and whilst I was at it, I decided to ask them to clarify whether these schools really couldn’t give me an answer before seeing our requests via the BCC application forms. I suspected that they’d just say it’s up to them and BCC don’t have any influence on them, but I thought it was worth making the point to the council that I was getting conflicting info from different schools on this, and that I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time if they were going to decline our requests. I got no reply in a couple of weeks, so I chased it up, and got a reply from an office junior who assured me she had passed it to her seniors and that someone would be in contact shortly. Still nothing……

Anyway, I decided to ask School 1 if they knew the procedure for applying for a CSA start with BCC. The very helpful admin manager said that we should apply as normal this year, and that she would email BCC now to say that they were supportive of a CSA reception start if we applied again next year. After some more searching I eventually found a page on BCC’s website about how to do an application for “deferred entry”. The School Admissions Code (2014) uses “deferred entry” to mean starting school in reception part way through the school year in which a child has turned 4 in the September, and “admission out of normal age group” to mean starting school in reception in the September after the child has turned 5. This probably contributed to my confusion – I don’t understand why BCC have to call it deferred entry when they mean admission out of normal age group. The schools have all called it deferred entry too, so I guess this is just what it has come to mean. The way to request it was to simply send an email to a specific deferred entry address with our reasons and any supporting evidence, alongside filling in the standard application form. So that’s what I did for each twin in mid October.

A few weeks after the application deadline, in early February this year, I got an email from D, the School Admissions Officer (Primary Lead) at BCC, in reply to my application email, which said the following:

  • Sorry for a lengthy delay in responding to me. [Does this mean to my original email asking about the process back in September? I think probably yes given the rest of the content of the email, which is a bit late now, but nevermind, I figured it out.]
  • Confirmation that all 3 schools are their own admissions authorities and therefore the decisions to approve or decline our requests lies with them. [OK, it would be helpful if they could tell me in advance of application, but good to have confirmation.]
  • Acknowledgment that School 1 has agreed to our request. [Does this mean as told by me, or did she see an email from the school?]
  • BCC are happy to go along with whatever schools say to these requests. [Yay for anyone else applying in Brum to supportive schools!]
  • I need to forward to D the written approvals from the 3 schools, or arrange for them to email her with their approvals, and then she can update the records to indicate that the twins are deferred entry pupils and then they would contact us in October/November to apply again for next year.

So this answered my questions from before I applied, but then it raised the question of why I needed to be getting in touch with the schools (particularly 2 and 3) again, because the last I heard from them, I’d reached a dead end – they were waiting to receive our applications before giving me any answers! Did I have to do more chasing then?! I LOLed at this, then calmed down and wrote an email to D to clarify. No reply arrived, so after a week or so, I checked with School 1 that she had definitely emailed their approval, because it wasn’t clear if D had seen this from her or from me saying that they had agreed. I then emailed Schools 2 and 3 to see if they now had an answer to our request that I could forward to D. 

School 2 replied saying that they would normally receive notification of our request from D, but that they hadn’t, so she would follow this up with D, and that I could also reply to D saying that they were still waiting to see our request. Talk about wild goose chase! School 3 replied saying that they hadn’t received anything from BCC either, but that they also couldn’t see our school-specific application form for the twins. I replied that I hadn’t realised there was a separate application form to submit as well as the BCC one – I’ve never had to do this for any other school applications, and I think I was so focussed on reading policies on school websites about admission out of normal age group that I must have missed this instruction on their website. Face palm! I then asked if I could still apply (late) to them this year, given that if they approve a CSA start then I’d need to apply again next year anyway, and at that point I would make sure to fill in their specific form too. A quick reply said that this was fine, so I filled in two forms and sent them back – they didn’t ask any questions that I hadn’t already filled in on the BCC form, but at least now this school definitely has our details and request. This separate form situation highlights the fact that we have this strange system with academies, schools that are under national government power, as well as community and voluntary aided/controlled schools, which are under local government power, but all are part of the same local government application process.

At this point, I don’t have any more answers than I did in September. I understand that the BCC admissions team are probably all snowed under, working from home and maybe even juggling their own children being around. This was probably always going to be a tricky year to make this application. I’m willing and able to write emails and read/understand replies, to try and find out what needs to be done, but others may find this kind of thing harder. I can’t stand being thrown around from one person to another, never properly finding out what’s really happening, and everyone seems to have their own version of what happens when and how. Thankfully I’m confident that all will be well with School 1, but this would have been a very stressful time for us had we not have had that reassuring conversation back in July with the head teacher. 

I now still await answers from Schools 2 and 3, and I wonder what will happen first: we get places at School 1 on offer day in April (which we will then decline and reapply for next year); or we get answers from Schools 2 and 3. Watch this space!

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