Distance learning

Sudbourne primary school in Brixton, south London is the sort of
school everyone likes to hear about. Located in an urban
neighbourhood with high crime rates and high unemployment, it gets
good exam results and has not excluded a single child in five
years. It is a Beacon School, designated by the Department for
Education and Skills (DfES) as “amongst the best performing in the
country” and exemplifying “successful practice … to be brought to
the attention of the rest of the education service with a view to
sharing and spreading that effective practice to others”.

One practice the school takes very seriously is supporting children
through the transition from primary to secondary school. There is
substantial evidence that many children begin to fall by the
wayside when they make the transition, losing enthusiasm for
learning and becoming alienated from school. Like many primary
schools Sudbourne tries to prepare children before the move by
accompanying them to “taster” days at their future school. It also
keeps in touch with more vulnerable children after the transition
by visiting them at their secondary school.

Sounds straightforward, but for Sudbourne school this practice is
extremely difficult because last year the school’s 45 leavers were
dispersed among 25 different secondary schools. Like children in
several inner London boroughs, Brixton children have no local
school, and the schools nearest to their homes are full and
oversubscribed. Schools have been closed down and the sites sold by
the local education authority because they were unpopular with
parents and so had too many surplus places. As a result, friendship
groups are being routinely broken up and children expected to
travel miles to often equally unpopular schools in unfamiliar

And the situation shows little sign of improving in the short term.
Brixton is in the London borough of Lambeth where census figures
indicate a population of about 3,200 11 year olds next September.
But according to the local education authority only 1,557 places
will be available in Lambeth for children starting secondary

Sudbourne school governor and parent Devon Alison explains: “They
should be going to secondary school together in a cohort so the
primary school can support the transition. I calculated that the 45
children who left Sudbourne last year are now travelling 1,600 road
miles per week between them to get to school and back.”

Alison, who is leading a campaign for a new mixed,
non-denominational secondary school in Brixton, believes the
shortage of local schools is seriously damaging the educational
prospects of local children. “There is institutional unfairness
when children in Brixton are never the closest to any school – it
blights their chances. There are about 20 primary schools in this
area with no local secondary school.”

Splitting up primary school friendship groups and making children
travel long distances to school makes it more difficult for them to
settle at secondary school and more likely that they will stop
attending regularly, says Alison.

“People know it makes it a lot harder for them to stay in school
and to achieve. They get sick of the travelling and it makes it
more likely that they won’t go.

“Families risk being fined for problems that educational experts
know will arise if kids are made to travel long distances. A child
is less likely to succeed with a five-mile journey to make every
day to a place where they know no one. And all this travelling
deprives them of leisure time, time with their families and time to

Her case is supported by research published by the DfES on
children’s transition from primary to secondary school last
autumn.1 A main finding of the three-year project was
that friendships are important educationally as well as socially,
and that teachers should recognise the value of peer support in the
classroom for year seven children.

In Hackney there is a similar story. After closing two of its
secondary schools because they were deemed to be failing, it has
only one non-denominational mixed secondary school. Next September
there will be school places for less than 60 per cent of its
resident year 7 children, including the places provided by a new
City Academy due to open on the site of the old Hackney Downs
school at the start of next school year.

Education in Hackney is now run by a private company, the Learning
Trust. When the Learning Trust cannot find a child a suitable place
in a Hackney school it rings round other boroughs until it finds a
school with an empty place, then informs the parent that the place
is available. If parents decline to send their child several miles
to school in another borough, or to a school they consider
unsuitable for other reasons, the child may not go to school at
all. The Learning Trust told 0-19 that in early December they knew
of at least 55 year 7 children in the borough without a school
place anywhere. And the Learning Trust freely admits that there are
more, unidentified children without a school place.

“Our schools are full and oversubscribed. We can’t make a school in
another borough take a pupil, and we can’t make the parent accept
the place. We try to help them find a school place, and we have
that responsibility but we can only exercise our responsibility in
respect of children we know about. We shouldn’t overestimate the
degree to which we can police the situation,” said a spokesperson
from the Learning Trust.

Children who arrive in the borough after age 11 are no better off.
Paul Murphy is a qualified teacher who now works for a community
project in Hackney helping children from newly arrived asylum
seeker families access education. Although he finds the staff at
the Learning Trust very keen to help, it is often months before
young people get into school. “It’s usually OK with primary school
children, but when a family comes through the door with an older
child my heart sinks.”

In the worst case Murphy has dealt with, a family applied for a
place for their 14-year-old son in January last year and in October
had still been offered nothing. By then the boy was on medication
for depression.

“The trouble is you can only appeal to individual schools and you
have to come up with a reason why the child should go to that
school in particular. We haven’t got reasons for one school over
another – we just want a place. And there aren’t any.”

So how has this situation arisen, and what is being done to improve

Astonishingly, Ofsted, in its inspection report on Hackney local
education authority, published on 19 January, describes the
borough’s school place planning as “highly

The DfES seems oblivious to the problem. A spokesperson told
0-19: “Every local authority has responsibility for
providing enough places for the children in the area. We leave it
to local authorities to ensure they do, and don’t keep figures
centrally.” Although both Lambeth and Hackney are among the five
boroughs in the government’s new London Challenge programme, there
is no mention in the London Challenge report of problems being
created by the serious underprovision of school places in these
boroughs.3 Instead, the fact that many children are not
at school in their own boroughs is interpreted as evidence only of
parental dissatisfaction with local schools.

However, the Government Office for London seems to have woken up to
the crisis. In a submission to London mayor Ken Livingstone’s draft
London. Plan, it identifies two “key objectives” for education in
London – an increase in the number of school places, and a
reduction in number of children travelling long distances to

The plight of children at Sudbourne and others like them is the
result of past and present governments’ emphasis on parental
choice, combined with pressure from the Audit Commission and Ofsted
for efficiency in education spending.4 A report from
Ofsted on school place planning last year spells out the social
polarisation that parental choice has created.5

“Parental preference exacerbates a number of problems. An unpopular
and low-attaining school with spare places may lose more pupils,
becoming the only school in an area with places for excluded or
mobile pupils and so entering a spiral of decline. In these
circumstances parents with high aspirations for their children may
believe that the school cannot meet these. This resulting
polarisation of school provision based on educational, social and
economic factors is a major issue for many authorities. The weakest
schools frequently serve the poorest, most vulnerable and most
disaffected groups.”

Ofsted says that although LEAs are right to invest heavily in
unpopular schools, school closure may sometimes be the best
solution “even when the school places are required”. In a statement
to 0-19 Ofsted elaborates. “For an LEA, maintaining
schools with high levels of surplus places is costly and drains
resources away from other more successful schools that are
oversubscribed. The LEA has a duty to ensure that it provides value
for money and has to engage in place reductions to save

What Ofsted does not explain is how children living in poor
neighbourhoods can benefit from the closure of their local school.
As Devon Alison points out, whichever school they then apply to,
they will be competing with children who live closer to the school.
So the only schools they will be able to access will be those with
surplus places – the least popular ones. At worst, children may
drop out of education altogether. On four occasions when Alison has
been in local primary school playgrounds to talk to parents about
the schools campaign, young teenagers bringing their siblings to
school have approached her to ask if she can help them get into a
local school. “They want to learn, but they are out of school
because they weren’t offered a school place which was viable for

Brixton parents’ campaign for a local secondary school received a
boost when Nelson Mandela gave the campaign permission to use his
name for a school, and a petition of 1,000 signatures has now been
sent to Tony Blair. Devon Alison’s own children are still several
years off secondary school age, and she is hopeful that they and
their friends will have a less stressful and disruptive experience
than today’s 11 year olds.

“The children here are tortured by the transfer programme, and
their chances are being blighted. We can’t let this situation

1 Maurice Galton et al,
Transfer and Transitions in the Middle Years of Schooling,
DfES, 2003,


2 Inspection report, Hackney
Local Education Authority, Audit Commission/Ofsted, 2004


The London Challenge:
Transforming London Secondary Schools
, DfES, 2003

Trading Places – A Review of the Supply and
Allocation of School Places
, Audit Commission, 2002

School Place Planning – The Influence of School
Place Planning on Standards and Social Inclusion
, Ofsted,

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