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Why parents are on the warpath

The current pursuit of school places has turned more Jewish homes than ever into arenas of stress

Getting your child into the right school can be a fraught business. Over the past few weeks, the JC has received a string of complaints from parents whose children have been denied a place at their local Jewish school.

Passions are running so high that one family whose child got into a school told me that the members of another family whose child was unsuccessful were not speaking to them.

On the bright side, the pressure on places at Jewish secondary schools in London has eased, largely owing to the opening this autumn of the Jewish Community Secondary School. There had been fears that, as a result of the JFS court case, children from non-religious families might struggle to meet the new entrance criteria for Jewish schools, which judges said must be based on practice, not parentage.

However, such is the availability of places that even Jewish children who "failed" the new faith test should have been able to find somewhere to take them. But there has been at least one casualty of the new entry system: 11-year-old Kayleigh Chapple, who was rejected by King David High School in Liverpool.

Since only nine of the 90 first-year entrants to King David are Jewish, you might think the school would happily accept anyone who could simply say "aleph, bet, gimmel." A year ago, Kayleigh could have booked her desk there because her mother is Jewish. But under the new admissions rules, she had not clocked up enough Jewish practice points to pass muster.

Her mother says the school failed to notify her of the revised entry rules until last December - well after the High Holy-Day season when most parents took their children to synagogue to meet the new entrance conditions. If this is correct, I find it hard to understand why Kayleigh was not subsequently granted a place on appeal. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Chapple has now put the matter in the hands of lawyers.

But the main problem this year has been the shortage of nursery places in outer north-west London. When there are more applicants than vacancies, schools often give priority to those who live closest to the school.

But, in one instance, a local council miscalculated the distances, depriving half-a-dozen children of their nursery places. In another, a father, rightly taking "as the crow flies" to mean a straight line from his house, found that the school's straight line was not the same as his own.

It is frustrating for families that, unlike with entrance at reception or secondary school, there is no statutory right of appeal against rejection by the nursery of a state-aided school. And if their children cannot get into the school's nursery they may not be able to get into the reception class the following year, since schools often give priority at reception for children who have been to the nursery.

But should primary schools be giving priority to children at their nurseries? The Department of Education states: "Admission authorities should not give priority in their arrangements to children attending the school's nursery or otherwise imply that parents have to enrol their child at the nursery in order to secure a place" (from the 2006 Code of Practice on Free Nursery School Provision).

So are Jewish primary schools acting contrary to the rules? The local authorities I contacted said not, this time quoting a different set of guidelines (from the Schools Admissions Code) that do permit schools to give priority at reception to those coming up from their nurseries as long as other families living near the school are "not unfairly disadvantaged".

The two codes appear to contradict one another. When I went back to the DoE for clarification, they agreed that both codes are "in force" but offered the following explanation: the earlier Nursery Code represents ministerial guidance, which local authorities are expected to consider but can choose not to follow, whereas the later Schools Admission Code is binding.

All this is rather confusing for parents. Indeed, the interpretation of the codes is almost asking for legal challenge. The Nursery Code will be updated in autumn but that does not help parents now.

If Mrs Mightily Miffed of Mill Hill were to opt to consult her lawyers, who could blame her? For if there is one thing the JFS court case has taught us, it is the lengths to which parents will go to secure educational justice for their children.

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