Applying for school places out of normal age group: school 3 changed their mind

In my last blog post about the twins starting school in Reception at compulsory school age, I referred to the decision from school 3, St Francis C of E Primary and Nursery School, who had decided to not support our request for admission out of normal age group. At that point I was in the process of trying to get them to give me a lawful answer to the correct question. I am pleased to say that, after going through two stages of a complaints process, I managed to achieve this, and they reversed their decision. 

This blog post goes through all my correspondence with them in order, because it could be useful for others who are going through the same battle with other schools. It’s really important, if you find yourself in this position, that you know the law and your rights, and how to ask them the right question, which they are legally obliged to answer. 

To recap, here is the question that I asked in my initial contact with them, which was the same as with the other two schools:

I am a parent of twins who were born in June 2017; therefore we are eligible to apply for a school place in the forthcoming admissions round which ends in January 2021, for them to start reception aged 4 years in September 2021. However, as I note that you’re aware from your admissions policy, compulsory school age isn’t until the beginning of the term after a child’s 5th birthday. Furthermore, the School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17 states that “the parents of a summer born child may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their 5th birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1.”

I strongly believe that it is in our twins’ best interests to start school at compulsory school age, for a variety of reasons which I am happy to discuss. Therefore they won’t be attending school until the September after their 5th birthday (2022). Moreover, I strongly believe that reception is a vital year of education for children, and therefore it is in their best interests to not miss out on this important foundation, to not go straight into year 1 when they start school at compulsory school age. 

So my question is: would St Francis CofE Primary School support a request for our summer born children to be admitted out of their normal age group, to start school at compulsory school age in reception?

Thank you for your time in reading, and I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

At that point they said that I should apply first, and then they would give me a response (which was what school 2 said too). School 3 required me to submit a separate application form as well as the council’s one, so here’s the statement that I submitted as part of that:

As their parents, we have decided that they will be starting school in September 2022, which is the September after they turn 5 years old (compulsory school age), as is our legal right. We feel that their social and emotional development would not be at a stage that is compatible with education within a school setting at just turned 4 years old. In particular, Samuel still has difficulties with toileting and often soils his underwear. But, as it states in the School Admissions Code 2014 section 2.17, just being summerborn is reason enough to request admission out of normal age group.

We feel very strongly that they should not miss out on the vital year that is Reception when they start school at 5 years old, and to go straight into Year 1 at CSA would not be in their best interests. According to the Bold Beginnings report conducted by Ofsted, reception is a “unique and important” year: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/663560/28933_Ofsted_-_Early_Years_Curriculum_Report_-_Accessible.pdf

A good Reception class would prepare our children for their years of schooling ahead, making sure they were well equipped to go into Year 1 and beyond. Friendship groups are formed in reception class, so our children could find it harder to integrate with peers if they started in Year 1. Reception is a gentle introduction to formal learning and school life through play, which is really important to bridge the gap between their play at home/nursery and their more formal education that follows in Key Stage 1 and beyond. Reception provides the early foundation of literacy and maths, which is particularly emphasised in the Bold Beginnings report, and it would be detrimental to their future education if they missed out on this foundation.

As I wrote in my last blog post, it was four days after school places offer day that I received a short response from one of the governors. It simply said:

The St Francis CofE Primary School and Nursery Admissions Panel met last week to discuss your request to defer entry to the Reception class in September 2022 for your children, Samuel and Naomi. Having reviewed the evidence provided, the Admissions Panel decided not to support the request for deferred entry to our school. 

This is unlawful, because it does not state the reasons for their decision. So I replied quoting the School Admissions Code and asked them to please set out their reasons. About a week later I received a further response, which said:

Thank you for your email asking for a more detailed response regarding our decision to decline your request for deferred entry. The St Francis CofE Primary School and Nursery Admissions Panel decided not to support your request for deferred entry to our school for the following reasons:

– As a one-form entry school, the nature of our approach and ethos enables children to thrive and progress. We always think of the whole child and their learning journey through our school when taking these decisions.

– The committee did not feel the evidence provided showed a significant developmental delay or medical reason which would necessitate a deferred start. The children would therefore not be at any greater advantage starting school later than their intended year.

– We have a very experienced Early Years team, who address children’s individual learning needs. The particular issues raised in your request fall within our usual provision in Reception.

The committee also discussed how the decision to defer entry into Reception has implications for transition to secondary school as another deferral request has to be made at this point. There is no guarantee it would be upheld and the child may have to move from Year 5 into Year 7, missing out on the learning in Year 6 and having to move away from their friends.

I hope this clarifies our decision.

This was still not a lawful answer, because it essentially answered the wrong question. The question which the admissions panel is legally obliged to answer is: When our children start school aged 5 in September 2022, to which year group would they be admitted, Reception or Year 1? If the answer to this is Year 1, then the panel’s reasons need to set out how they consider it to be in our twins’ best interests to miss the entire year of education that is Reception. So I sent a rather long letter back, taking each of their points and showing them why they still did not answer the question, and in fact it was easy to use their own words against them to make my points. You can read this letter below. It even contained a references section – now I really know why I did a PhD!

Sadly I didn’t receive any reply to this for about two months, despite some chasing via the office receptionist, so I decided to start the school’s complaints process; I sent a stage 1 complaint email to the head teacher. She apologised for the delay, and told me that they were seeking further advice from School Governor Support and the Admissions Team at Birmingham City Council (despite being an academy, so not under BCC control) as to how to answer our last letter. She also stated that the twins would be admitted to Year 1 (if sufficient places), but offered no reasons as to how the panel had considered it to be in their best interests. In response to me pointing this out to her, she reluctantly set up another meeting about a week later for the panel to discuss our case. I then received a further letter from the governor:

We write in response to your question, “How your school caters for children in year 1 who have not had the essential foundation of a reception class and how this is in the best interests of the children?” [this was a question I asked the head teacher, not the admissions authority as she is not that, as part of my email exchange with her in the stage 1 complaint; it was nothing to do with the question that the admissions authority is obliged to answer, which they still had not answered!!]

We have an experienced member of staff in Year 1.  As part of our transition from Early Years into the National Curriculum we have a period of time where the children continue to access their learning through the free flow approach of Reception before moving into the more formal National Curriculum learning.  This period of transition is guided by the children and we have successfully delivered this approach for a number of children in the past, providing early years provision until they are ready to access more formal learning. Our staff deliver quality first teaching and we provide interventions appropriate to the needs of the children. 

The committee feels it has now answered all of your queries and wish you well for the future. 

This still did not state that the twins would be admitted to Year 1 (the head teacher’s statement on this was not from the admissions authority – the governing body) and it still did not show how the panel had considered it to be in our twins’ best interests to miss Reception. They still had not responded at all to any of the points I had made in the long letter I sent a couple of months previously, and instead had faffed about with an irrelevant (to them) question.

Therefore I went ahead with a stage 2 complaint, which went to the Clerk to the Governing Body, since my complaint was about members of the governing body. On the same day, I also sent the reply below to the governor’s letter.

The main thing to stress about making complaints of this nature is that it concerns the HOW rather than the WHAT: my complaint did not concern the fact that the panel did not support our request for admission out of normal age group (to be honest my kids were never going to go to a school that didn’t agree with us), rather it concerned the way in which the panel had handled our request – they did not answer the question as set out in law, despite us giving them ample opportunity beyond the first unlawful response.

Within the ten working days that is set out for stage 2 in their complaints process, I got a fantastic response from two governors who had not been involved in the decision before:

We are writing in response to your Stage 2 complaint, dated 5th July 2021. Thank you for setting out your grievances clearly.

The Governing Body has re-examined your case and carefully considered all possible scenarios. It should be noted that our thoughts on entry to Reception in September 2021 still stand, that is, we are confident that our flexible provision and child-centred ethos would have enabled your twins to thrive, and that this would be in their best interests. However, we also recognise and respect your decision that this was not and is not under consideration.

As a result of our review, we have decided to reverse our decision (that Samuel and Naomi would be admitted to Year 1 in September 2022 upon a successful application) and would be willing to admit them out of normal age group, that is to Reception in September 2022. This is obviously dependent on a successful application during the October 2021- January 2022 admissions round, which will (in accordance with the legal requirements) be given exactly the same consideration as all normal age group applications, and our normal admissions criteria (which can be found on our website) would apply.

We hope this is a satisfactory outcome for you. We wish you good luck for your upcoming applications and obviously wish your twins an enjoyable time at whichever primary school they end up attending.

Finally, we had found some people who understood what was being asked of them within the law! I was so pleased that my persistence had led to them changing their minds. My suspicion is that the head teacher had essentially made the decision, and a governor was put in the position of making that fit in with their obligations when challenged. But when fresh pairs of eyes looked at the whole thing, it was obvious to them that it’s impossible for any credible school to say no to our request. They essentially have to argue that it is in a child’s best interests to miss a year of education.

My main issue with this whole saga is that getting approval for a CSA start in Reception is such a postcode lottery. I don’t want my kids to go to a school who have treated us like this anyway, so this school won’t be our first or second preference, but we are blessed with two other good options who said yes quickly and without a challenge. Other parents aren’t so fortunate, and it’s crazy that they have to battle when I don’t have to. I only fought this for others, not us, because I want to help parents who request the same in future – if nobody ever challenges the system, then nothing ever changes. Schools cannot be allowed to break the law and get away with it. What needs to happen is a change in the law, that gives all parents equal access to what some are granted automatically in certain (forward-thinking) local authorities. Academy schools seem, in general and in our specific case, to be the hardest ones to work with on this. The current government, according to Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP, is committed to changing the law to allow every summerborn child the automatic right to a CSA Reception start if it is their parents’ wish. He has said on repeated occasions that they will legislate as soon as parliamentary times allows, but so far there has been no sign of this being imminent.

If you’re going through this same process and are struggling, I’m very happy to help where I can, so please get in touch. You’re welcome to use any of my letters published in this post to help you with yours. One thing to be aware of is that a new version of the School Admissions Code comes into force next week (September 2021) – there is no change to the law regarding CSA Reception starts, but the section numbers have changed. So when quoting the 2021 code you will need to check the relevant section numbers and not just copy mine which quoted the 2014 code.

So now we wait until November, when BCC Admissions Team should be sending me a paper application form to apply for the twins’ school places out of normal age group (not holding my breath!) – their online system can’t cope with a DOB that doesn’t fit the norm. Then we will be placed in the pot just like all the other applicants, and we will get allocated places based on all the usual criteria. It’s highly likely that we will get our first choice, just like we did this year and then declined, because we live so close and have a sibling link. But we have one, or (if desperate) two back-up schools. All’s well that ends well, I hope!

Looking forward to another year of nursery runs like this. I find it absolutely unbelievable to think that the twins could have been starting school in a few days time from now, and I’m so glad they’re not!

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