12th June 2023
Common questions on starting school
We know there is some frustration over school places for young refugees and we are working to resolve this. It is important that all host families understand the reality of the situation.
In the past 12 months, we have had more than 1,000 school-age children move into the borough and seek new school places.
This was an unprecedented number even before our arrivals from Ukraine. A major contributory factor to this has been an exceptionally large, and completely unexpected, number of families moving to the borough from Hong Kong.
This unprecedented influx of school-age children has put more pressure on in-year transfers than we have ever faced and exhausted our usual planned surplus of places.
The impact of this pressure is being felt differently on different year groups and is also affecting girls more than boys at a secondary school level.
In year admission processes
The problems are exacerbated by the fact that there are now many schools in the borough that are academies and choose to administer their own in-year admissions process rather than opt for us to co-ordinate this.
It does not allow for central coordination or working to prioritise preferences. It is not possible for this to be changed and is why some of you are frustrated at having to make many repeated applications to different schools. This is government policy. Trust-run schools also set their own admission criteria.
We must also follow the Government’s rules as set out in the Statutory Admissions Code in terms of being fair to all children; the Department for Education has made it very clear that we must not prioritise Ukrainians over other children on school waiting lists. We must be fair and equitable to all our applicants.
We are in negotiations our with our school's community, including those operations run by Academy Trusts, to find ways of accommodating the additional pupils who are looking for places in our schools.
This is not a simple process and relies not just on availability of staff and space but also compliance with complex government legislation.
It is for these reasons that places may be offered a little further from your residential address than you anticipate.
All this has made planning school places for Ukrainian children challenging and we share the frustrations some of you have felt and our officers are working hard to provide solutions and create spaces as quickly as possible.
Our request is that host families bear with us while we resolve these complex issues and we have put together a set of common questions that you can refer to for more information. These can be found below.
Answers to common questions
Can I apply for a school place before my refugee family arrives?
No. The Government’s rules on this are clear, children must be in the country before an application is made. Applications must also be made by the child’s parent or guardian.
For our planning purposes, it is useful to know what age children are arriving, and it would be great if you could let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org but this does not start an application process
Are Ukrainian refugee children able to be fast-tracked into school places?
No, that is illegal. We must follow the same fair procedures for all children in the borough. There are already waiting lists for many of our schools and we cannot move Ukrainian children up those lists.
However, we have employed an extra Education Welfare Officer and are recruiting a second to support families and guide them through the application process if they have concerns
Why are some children getting places quickly and others not?
We have different levels of availability in different school years across the borough. In part this is simply down to birth rates, which reached a peak in 2012 but have been falling since.
It has been made more difficult by the unprecedented number of families with school age children moving into the borough. We have found spaces for more than 350 children arriving from Hong Kong alone in the past year.
This has both increased pressure on places but also made planning for places difficult because it was entirely unpredictable, unlike birth rates. We have the most severe problems in Years 5 and Year 6.
Why can’t you just tell schools to expand and offer the necessary places?
The education system does not work like that anymore. Almost all the secondary schools and many primary schools in the borough are run as Academy Trusts or as part of Multi-Academy Trusts.
These schools are independent of the council and set their own admission criteria. Our local schools are keen to work with us but any expansion can only be achieved as part of negotiation and with their agreement. Factors include availability of teaching spaces and staffing.
Can I, or my Ukrainian guests choose what school they go to?
Parents and guardians can express a preference but we have to be clear and honest that choice for in-year admissions is limited because many of our schools are full already.
If your guests are offered a school that is not their preference we would strongly recommend that they accept it so that they have a place. They can then appeal an attempt to get into their preferred option at a later date.
You have an empty school buildings waiting to be opened – why don’t you use that?
This refers to the new school in Matthewsgreen, North Wokingham, also known as St Cecilia’s. We can understand why that seems a simple solution, but sadly it is not for quite a few reasons.
Before we are allowed to open a school it must have an Ofsted inspection and this must be applied for many months in advance. There is a lead time on opening new schools in order to get infrastructure such as staffing and safety processes in place. Teacher availability locally is challenging and we do not have a waiting cohort of spare staff.
If you can’t open a new school or force other schools to expand, what are you doing?
We are in constant discussions with schools across the borough who might be able to accommodate pupils and we have managed to agree some places.
We have managed to create extra places at some schools and are confident of agreeing extra places at other schools soon.
We have also agreed expansion in some secondary schools for which planning applications have been approved, however, this was planned to meet the existing demand before the additional demand from refugees created by the war in Ukraine.
We are also lobbying the Department for Education for clarity on funding support and for greater flexibility to allow us to respond better.