To Helen Mair's in The Park in Marshalswick to meet a bunch of mums whose children did not get any of their ranked preferences for secondary school in St Albans this year. Anne Main, county councillor Chris White and district councillor Chris Brazier were also there in a crowded living room. It is quite clear that the system is broken in the whole south-west of the county. Last night I was in Bedmond and the same issues were being raised on the doorstep.
It must be heart-breaking for any parents and I thank my lucky stars that my own children all got into their first choice comprehensive school. The simple fact of the matter is that too many local school places are taken up by children from outside the city and district - I am told that 310 more children will be coming in from outside the district boundaries from this September. This is specifically allowed under the rules, but that's where the problems arise. Within the district, treating St Albans city as a single parish has produced a nightmare for most families in the centre and south of the city where they have almost no chance of getting in to the prized STAGS, Sandringham and Beaumont.
Life is not made easier when St Albans has so many faith schools, whose catchment areas can become very wide. Liberal Democrat national schools policy is to ensure that faith schools remain properly inclusive of their local communities precisely to address the situation where families are denied their local school. Questions need to be asked about the sibling rule and whether it should have the same over-riding supremacy when families move away from the priority catchment area for a school. We also need to ensure that all schools in St Albans are equally prized and valued. There is no doubt that Francis Bacon in particular suffers from past reputation. Maybe a rebranding would give it a truly fresh start, there is no doubt that many of the core problems are being tackled but it takes a long time to overcome word of mouth based on ancient history. The now much lauded Sandringham came out of the much maligned Marshalswick School.
Another interesting idea was a "swap shop" where for example parents seeking a single sex school for their child and being awarded a co-ed could trade places with another family which wanted a co-ed and had been given single sex. It sounds barmy but that has happened this year, leaving both families unhappy and frustrated. In the final analysis, there just are not enough schools. It's the St Albans primary crisis writ large. Children's lives and happiness are at stake. When is the county council going to grasp the nettle?