A fresh controversy has erupted over school admissions with a Jewish primary informing the parents of five nursery pupils that the children will almost certainly have to leave at the end of the year.
The decision comes after the school was told that it could not give priority for reception class places to children who had attended its nursery or whose parents belonged to a synagogue.
Clore Shalom, a pluralist primary in Hertfordshire which takes 30 children in reception every year, has changed its entry rules after the Office of the Schools Adjudicator upheld a complaint by a parent against its previous policy.
The ruling, and the school’s response, have caused outrage and the launch of an online petition by the parents of the pupils.
David Prever, whose three-year-old son Barney is one of the five, said: “We were given the expectation when he started that he would be continuing next year. The nursery and reception class are interconnecting and they do activities together.
Rules exist to promote a level playing field when places are sought after
“On the way into school he says, ‘Daddy, I’m going to be in reception next year, like the big boys and girls’, but in effect, he is going to be expelled.”
It is just three years since many Jewish schools were forced to rewrite their admissions policies after a Supreme Court ruling that they breached racial discrimination laws.
Clore Shalom is heavily oversubscribed and in past years almost all of its reception places have gone to pupils attending the nursery.
Apart from siblings, its previous policy gave preference to children whose families were members of Masorti, Reform and Liberal synagogues and who attended Clore Shalom’s nursery.
After these, priority went to nursery pupils whose parents be-
longed to any type of synagogue.
In a ruling against Clore Shalom in August, Schools Adjudicator David Lennard Jones noted that there was no explicit rule against using nursery attendance as an entry criterion.
But he went on to say that the official admission code prohibited “giving priority to a child on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation”.
He observed: “By taking up a place at the nursery, the parent is financially supporting the nursery indirectly through the state-funded 15 hours’ nursery provision, and therefore there is financial support to the nursery which is an associated organisation.”
He also ruled against using synagogue membership because synagogues charge membership fees.
Clore Shalom immediately revised its admissions policy, using attendance at synagogue services rather than membership.
Until now, 29 of the 30 nursery pupils have gone on to the reception class at the primary school. Given the demand for places, pupils who were not accepted into the nursery were thus effectively denied admission to the reception class.
The Adjudicator ruled that this was unfair.
The school has now decided that only 25 nursery pupils can have priority admission into reception, with the “bottom” five, who will be denied entry, being decided by distance from the school.
More than 400 people had signed the petition against the policy change within 24 hours of its launch.
The Prevers, and the other four couples whose children are set to lose out, have called on the governors to postpone the implementation of the new policy — or explore other options such as adding an extra reception class next year. Their problem is that the only other state-aided Jewish school in the vicinity is also heavily oversubscribed.
But Clore Shalom’s chairman of governors, Irene Blaston, said in a letter to parents that they had no other option. “This change is not one which the governors want, but once the Adjudicator had given his ruling, the governors were legally obliged to comply immediately,” she wrote.
“Our lawyers have advised us that the adjudication may be challengeable, but that this would incur costs of at least £20,000.
“Whilst we understand the position of the affected parents, it would not be a justifiable use of the school’s extremely limited funds.”
The parents’ anger was exacerbated by the delay in the school governors managing to inform the parents of the change in Clore Shalom’s admissions policy.
The deadline for an appeal is November 3, twelve weeks after the ruling. But the governors did not write to parents until six weeks after the judgment — effectively halving the time available to the affected parents to organise any appeal for themselves.
The implications for other schools are unclear since rulings from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator apply only to individual schools against which a complaint has been raised.
The other local state-aided Jewish primary, for example, Hertsmere Jewish Day School, is continuing to use nursery attendance in its entry policy for next autumn.
A number of other Jewish schools also use synagogue membership to determine priority for places.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, asked about the change in the school’s policy, said that admission regulations existed “to promote a level playing field, at a time when places at Jewish schools are highly sought after, and parents who haven’t sent their children to a nursery should also have the opportunity to avail them of a Jewish education.
“We naturally want to be in a position where as many Jewish children as wish to can attend Jewish schools.
“We will work with schools and the Department for Education to see how these kind of conflicting interest can be reconciled in the future.”