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Preparing for a secondary appeal hearing

In the second part of our series on the secondary school appeals process Bernadette John from the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants explains how to prepare for an appeal hearing.

You’ve submitted your appeal documents. What happens next?

The hearings take place between May and early July. You should be given at least 10 school days’ notice of the date.

Appeal hearings follow one of two formats. You and the school may put your case before a panel in an entirely private hearing.  But where there are great numbers appealing to a school, there is often a two-stage hearing – a public meeting where the school makes its case and a second stage private hearing where you outline your child’s case.

At a private appeal the panel will comprise three to five lay people and there will be a clerk guiding proceedings and taking notes. 

The school’s representative speaks first, stating why admitting any extra children will harm the education of current pupils. You will be sent details of the school’s case before the hearing. This might give complicated architectural equations for bodies per square metre, as well as some plain silly statements, such as that they need to keep an empty desk in each classroom for an observer.  Do research their claims, but don’t get too hung up on this.  Remember that any weakness you spot in the school’s argument benefits all appellants; you need to put most of your energy into describing why your child’s case is an exceptional one. 

The school may argue that it lacks adequate classroom space or sports provision for additional pupils; a quick look at its website may show that it is boasting about work starting on a new classroom block or sports hall. You can ask the local authority for numbers admitted over PAN (planned admissions) in the previous few years; from this you may be able to see that the school has regularly admitted extra pupils without undue harm.

Once you and the panel have questioned the school, it’s your turn.  Rehearse your statement ahead of the hearing – you are likely to feel highly emotional and nervous with so much at stake. Time yourself, and make sure that your statement is no more than seven or eight minutes. One adviser who has witnessed many appeals told us that the biggest mistake parents make is boring the panel with irrelevant detail. And be truthful, because the panel will question you closely.

Concentrate on a few key arguments that you can back up with documentary evidence to demonstrate why your child needs to be at the preferred school (for example health issues, special educational needs, previous bullying, peer group levels if it’s a selective school). You can state factual reasons as to why the offered school will not meet these needs, but focus on the positive aspects of the school you want, rather than criticising the one you don’t. Documents must be submitted ahead of the appeal and you can’t show exercise books or other materials to the panel.

The hearing lasts around 30 minutes, but there’s no cut off point – the panel will check that you have said all you need to and you have the final word. Try to make this something to remember you by – they may be hearing nearly 100 appeals.

You will get the decision within five working days.

The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants offers expert advice on appealling for a school place. Find out more: appeals and applications under special circumstances

Practice really does make perfect (but you may have to wait 30 years)

Music practice is a drag. Even Mrs Mozart must have had to nag her tiny prodigy sometimes – ‘Put that concerto down, Wolfy, you haven’t even looked at your grade four pieces’. Received wisdom tells us, and we tell our children, that if you can get to grade five standard on an instrument then you’ll have that skill for life. It’s a bit of a hard sell to an eight-year-old scraping out an anguished version of Twinkle Twinkle on one of China’s finest Skylark brand starter violins. (‘Darling, I had no idea you’d mastered Bartok! So is it worth the nagging and the earplugs? Should we give up and sell that French horn in the attic or resign ourselves to the metamorphosis of piano into awkward photo bearing sideboard? The answer to this rhetorical question depends where you live. In France or Germany for instance it would most likely be ‘oui’ or ‘ja’ but in England it is a proud ‘I think not’.

Blow the dust off that cello, get it re-strung and serviced and Google ‘amateur orchestras’ in your area. You’ll be amazed and they will be delighted. Sorry to all those pianists, saxophonists and drummers – you’ll have to form your own bands. The UK has a noble but under celebrated history of amateur orchestras. Some are a bit scary and audition-only but there are plenty of non-audition or come and play options too. Most work towards one or two concerts a year but if that sounds too demanding then there are also so-called ‘rehearsal’ orchestras who practise but never perform.It’s hard to maintain musical skills in your career building and child rearing 20s and 30s, but when life slows down a little or priorities change people often take up their instruments again. So, is that received wisdom about grade five true?
If you’ve never played in an orchestra it can be daunting at first but don’t give up. All those scales and sight-reading exercises really were worth it and you’ll be amazed how quickly muscle memory comes back to your fingers. Making music with other people is a joyful experience. It’s great for your brain, it’s sociable and even better, music is a skill that age doesn’t limit – you just keep improving (as long as you do your practice).

Commuters are getting younger

Our article in last month’s newsletter about children’s long-distance commutes to school clearly struck a chord with readers.

Anecdotes streamed in, most of them agreeing that many youngsters spend up to three hours a day travelling to school and back these days.

Several parents told us that in rural East Anglia it’s common for children to have journeys of an hour or more to school. Schools run fleets of minibuses covering huge catchment areas and parents are adept at organising lift shares between themselves too.

One mother said: ‘Using bus journey times for conversation with friends is seen as a plus. My own son likes the feeling of being “in neutral,” staring out of the window without being yakked at by his mother.’

But another East Anglia-based mother said her children’s 45-minute commute had begun to take its strain on her children.

‘Driving on dark winter nights and not getting home till nearly 6pm has totally put us off going to any school that is further than 15 to 20 minutes away. The driving can also be hazardous.

‘Our kids are chatty generally, but they are so tired that they just want to plug into their appliances. We have no time for after-school activities, which is a real shame.

‘We lived abroad until recently and school was just five minutes away. There was a vibrant community around the school – just not the case for us now’.

Birmingham, it seems, is another area where children face commutes of an hour or more, often changing trains more than once, while parents of children with special educational needs frequently travel long distances in order to reach specialist schools.

Another recent development is for London parents to send their children to preps within an hour or so of the capital. Schools like Lambrook, Papplewick and Caldicott all run minibuses bright and early so London children can attend schools in the countryside without their parents having to move.

We also heard from a former Manchester Grammar School pupil who said that in the 70s and 80s boys travelled in from as far afield as Chester and Sheffield. But despite the long journey and three hours of homework a night he got in the sixth form he reckoned it was definitely worth it. ‘My classmates and I were all able to attend world-class schools that did not just educate and inspire us but prepared us to use our skills in a very competitive global market,’ he said.

Mind you, if you are worried that your child’s daily commute is getting too onerous it could be worth doing a bit of research on the route.

A Good Schools Guide writer told us: ‘Parents at a Kent grammar school told me that the bus journey for their daughters was taking 80 minutes. They were unhappy about this so the head called in the bus company and managed to get the bus re-routed. The upshot was that the journey time was cut down to 40 minutes’.

But even if you can’t shave any time off the school commute you can always encourage your children to get ahead while they are travelling. ‘Traffic jams and car number plates are brilliant for honing reading skills,’ said another of our writers.

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