Saturday, December 23, 2006

Five years later: Still no change in Lewisham schooling dilemma
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Evening Standard ran a story on December 20 that showed how more than eleven kids are chasing each place at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross, which makes it the most oversubscribed school in London. But this story of Lewisham over subscription could have been taken from an old article published more than five years ago.

Of the 208 places available at Hatcham College next September, 2,374 applicants are vying to be selected. It paints a pitiful picture that makes this borough look bad. In 2001, Lewisham Council said it could not access fresh money to build new schools while there was spare capacity in its State schools. This borough is still grappling with the issue of its schooling and as it emerges from the fiasco of the U-turn over the demolishing of the Ladywell Pool for a new school, it is found wanting. It is left to schools like Haberdashers’ to help. Outside of the ten percent it reserves for those that excel at music, Hatcham College runs a lottery for its remaining places. Otherwise, wealthy parents can buy token addresses within the catchment area of the school and effectively lock out poorer families. The other thing Haberdashers’ has done is taken over the old Malory school in Downham, which was slated five years ago for poor performance. A parent called Maxine Smelly was emotional at the thought of sending her son, Aaron, to that school in 2001: "My son cried when he heard he was only being offered a place at Malory School. Children know what kind of reputation the school has. I cried as well and I'm not the only parent who did so. I will keep him away from school rather than send him there." Thank heavens that reputation seems to have gone yet Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy – the successor to the old Malory – is also now facing an application overload: 911 children are chasing 208 spots, or more than four people for each place, for next year. You just can’t win, can you?

It seems to me that Lewisham Council ought to take a leaf out of the book of Alastair Pettigrew, their director of children's social care. He has argued for a new idea of looking after children in care using GP surgery-like practices. Run by the private and volunteer sectors, they would ultimately take over from local authorities. How about extending the same concept to schools? Why not invite organisations in the private and volunteer sectors to also take over our schools? And considering the success Haberdashers’ has had, I could not think of a better entity to turn to. But we better hurry up because Haberdashers’ seems to be looking beyond our borders. The Evening Standard of December 20 quotes Hatcham’s CEO Dr. Elizabeth Sidwell as already pondering another entity to include within the Haberdashers’ family: “It has just made it very clear to us that this is an offer that parents and children want. We would look to another school if we can, not necessarily in Lewisham.

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