Making the Grade

Miriam Reissner - Thursday 4th March 2010

The emotions felt by thousands of primary school pupils and their parents on Monday ranged from joy and relief to frustration and disappointment. After months of patiently waiting, this was the day they finally found out if their 10 or 11-year-old had been accepted into their secondary school of choice. For new Jewish secondary school pupils, the coming academic year offers more options than ever before with September's highly-anticipated opening of JCoSS secondary school in Barnet. Meanwhile, following the recent Supreme Court verdict on its admissions policy, JFS in Kenton will offers places to Jewish children from all spheres of the community.

Despite this increased choice, the application process was still an anxious one for Alison Cohen, whose 10-year-old daughter Jayme - currently in year six at Clore Tikva primary school in Barkingside - was this week offered a place at JCoSS. Alison said: "We are so delighted. We can now look forward to a new start and new adventures. Jayme is very happy. The opportunity to be part of a new school doesn't come around very often so we are thrilled by the prospect."
Recalling the application process, Alison says: "After marriage and moving house, it is the most stressful thing you have to do after you have a child. There have been sleepless nights and lots of soul searching. I really didn't know where to turn for expert advice at one point."

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Her uncertainty and frustration continued until Tuesday morning due to the Barnet council website crashing under the weight of inquiries. The Cohens had to email JCoSS directly to discover if their daughter had been offered a coveted place.

The Cohens were not alone. In the weeks leading up to decision day, school internet forums were buzzing with the concerns of anxious parents. One particularly worried message claimed: "I have become a nervous wreck and am losing weight. I wish there was some kind of remedy."

Despite living closer to King Solomon High School in Barkingside, Jayme's parents picked JCoSS as her first choice because of the new opportunities it will offer for a pluralistic Jewish education. While a religious upbringing is important to them, Jewish schools were not the Cohens' only option as they also applied to Davenant Foundation School in Loughton, which takes in large numbers of Jewish children.

Alison says that, when selecting a secondary school, parents should consider its overall academic standards and its commitment to religious studies equally. "When it comes to choosing a Jewish secondary school, the education has to be equally as good as other schools. The thought of having to settle for a school that is not of your choice is horrendous. The creation of JCoSS means it's now easier to get a place, but the decision about which to choose doesn't become any easier."

Education expert Katie Krais, who runs a secondary school transfer consultancy, empathises with Alison and the thousands of other parents who received either good or bad news this week. She said: "There is lot of peer pressure among the children to get into the right school and often parental anxiety can be passed down to children.

"Parents are crying out for help because they are not getting the information they need about the academic strengths of their child and how they compare to other pupils."

As a mother of two, Krais knows the application process all too well and has written a book on the subject called Getting Your Child Into Secondary School.
She provides parents with professional advice about their child's educational strengths and weaknesses and helps them to negotiate the often fraught process from primary to secondary education.

Krais adds that, while many schools offer impressive glossy brochures and alluring websites to impress parents, the two most important factors they should consider when applying are Ofsted reports and league tables.

Spencer Lewis, headteacher of King Solomon High School in Barkingside which will accept around 150 pupils in September, welcomes the arrival of JCoSS. He said: "It is now easier for parents as there are more secondary places available. There is a fantastic range of schools for them to choose from so there is absolutely no reason why any Jewish child should miss out on a Jewish education. There are enough places to go around.

"The application process is often unsettling but parents need to remember that there are numerous options open to them and if they are unlucky with their first choice they should contact other Jewish schools who may still have places."

JFS in Kenton, Europe's largest Jewish comprehensive school, offered around 300 year seven places for September, leaving more than half of the 650 applicants disappointed.

Headteacher Jonathan Miller said the number of applicants was similar to 2009.
It is likely that some of these offers will not be accepted and the school will have to make a second round of offers as part of the co-coordinated process run by local authorities.

Of course it is not just state schools that have had to turn children down this week, with many parents opting for private education.

Philip Skelker, headmaster of Immanuel College in Bushey, anticipates an intake of between 60 and 65 pupils this September. He said: "We recognise that a proportion of children among our applicants would fare better in other schools. The ability range we take is from above average to very able."

If a child does not get a place, Skelker urges parents to consult their child's primary school headteacher. He adds: "The application process is really not complicated but it generates plenty of anxiety. The prospect of change is a challenging one for children.

"Parents experience stress because their control of the process is limited and, rightly, they seek schools noted for excellent pastoral care and high academic standards."

Whatever the final result, educational experts agree that the most constructive reaction any parent can have is putting a positive spin on the outcome for the sake of their child.

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