School admissions in national spotlight

A three-part documentary following Birmingham families as they apply for secondary schools in the city is currently the flagship programme of the BBC’s school season.

Called The Big School Lottery, episode one was broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm last night and episode two will be aired at 9pm tonight (Weds, Sept 8th). The final part – showing the children on their first day at “big school”, will be broadcast next week.

Birmingham’s School Admission Service features heavily in the programme. Here, head of service Julie Newbold talks about being involved in the documentary and her job allocating school places in Europe’s biggest local authority…

julie newbold

Who am I?
I am Julie Newbold, Head of Admissions and Appeals at Birmingham City Council.

I have worked for Birmingham City Council since leaving school at the age of 16 and completed 30 years service on 1 August 2010.

My first role within the Admissions department was Admissions and Appeals Clerk, a post I took after returning to work full time once both my daughters had started secondary school.

In this role, I was responsible for entering preferences and offering advice to parents. Because of this, I fully understand the pressures and tasks our Admissions and Appeals Clerks face.

In 2000 I saw a job advertised as Principal Officer Admissions and Appeals at Birmingham City Council. I  applied and was offered the post. Since my appointment, I have tried to implement many changes. I believe our Admissions and Appeals Team is now much more about offering advice and guidance to both parents, their children and also to head teachers on all aspects of school admissions.

I love my job, I am proud to work to Admissions and Appeals and I am totally committed to providing the best possible service to the citizens of Birmingham.

How did I become involved in the programme?

Blast Films sent a request to Birmingham City Council press office stating that they were looking to make a longitudinal observational documentary to get an insight into how the admissions process works and wanted to highlight what a complex process it is. My Director, Tony Howell, asked if I would be willing to be involved and asked if I would meet with producers to discuss the programme. (Fellow Admissions and Appeals colleagues from other local authorities said “you must be mad”!! )

 At this stage I was reluctant. Not only due to the additional time and effort, when we are already under immense pressure trying to help over 30,000 children and their families seeking school places, but also the thought of being on national TV. 

I met with the Amanda Blue, who really encouraged me and confirmed that they did not want a documentary “shock, horror, child does not get what they want” type programme but the documentary would show the process and the hard work that goes into ensuring things run smoothly.

After a little bit of further persuasion from the press office and Tony Howell – who have been incredibly supportive - I was brave and agreed. I then just had to persuade my team!!

How do I feel when parent/carers are not offered their preferred school on national day of offer, 1 March.

My role, and that of the team, is to explain to parents why their child did not meet the criteria for their preferred school. It helps them understand if you take the time to explain to the parent  that over 1,000 children applied for school ”A” and obviously the school cannot admit all the children, therefore places are offered in accordance with published admission arrangements.

Our first priority is to children with a statement of special educational need, followed by looked after children, then if they have a sibling at the school, then distance. I will inform parents of their distance from the school and explain that “x” number of children live closer than their child.

My team and I take pride in our customer service and will show parents empathy, we advise them of their right of appeal and all that entails. We often have tears and tantrums from the parents and even have people shouting at us, but we try to be understanding. We also have tears of joy when parents find out that their child has been offered their preferred school!

One thing I will not accept is for any of my team to be on the receiving end of abuse. Unfortunately this does happen sometimes, but in the main after contact with my office, parent/carers understand why their child has not been offered their preferred school.

They may not be happy about it, but we make sure they know what their options are. Every year we receive cards, emails and letters from parents thanking us for our professionalism and informative and understanding service. Which is fantastic – especially when some of these come from parents who have not been offered any of their preferred schools!!

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