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The Big School Lottery: How we make the hard choices for your children

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Julie Newbold Julie Newbold | 12:32 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010

I'm the head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council and my role, and that of my team, is to allocate secondary school places to pupils. Where necessary, we explain to parents why their child did not meet the criteria for their preferred school. Our work will be seen in The Big School Lottery on BBC Two.

I really love my job and have recently completed 30 years service at Birmingham City Council. I started aged just 16 and my first job back then was in the adoption and fostering team.

Head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council Julie Newbold stands by a map of her area

I am really proud to work to admissions and appeals and am totally committed to providing the best possible service to the citizens of Birmingham. During my time here, I've implemented many changes and believe our 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.

Having children myself, it is a process I have been through, so fully understand that some parents may find this a stressful time.

Blast Films - who made The Big School Lottery - wrote to Birmingham City Council to say that they were looking to make an observational documentary to get an insight into how the admissions process works. 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.

Mikey, one of the pupils featured in the film

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.

And fellow admissions and appeals colleagues from other local authorities said, "You must be mad." I suppose as there's a natural wariness about letting cameras in!

But I was intrigued so I met with the producer/director, Amanda Blue, who was really encouraging and explained to me that the documentary would be about showing the process and the work that goes into allocating secondary places to children, as well as following the stories of several families going through the process.

After a bit of further persuasion from Tony Howell, who has been incredibly supportive, I took the brave step and agreed.

I then just had to persuade my team.

Much of our work involves talking with parents. It helps them understand if you take the time to explain to the parent that, for example, if over 1,000 children have applied for school A and the school only has an admission number of 150 places, then obviously the school cannot offer all of those children a place.

When a school is oversubscribed, places are offered in accordance with published admission arrangements. Overall priority is given to children with a statement of special educational need, followed by looked after children (in care or foster homes), then siblings and then by distance.

I will inform parents of their distance from the school and explain that X number of children live closer than their child, which is why they have not been offered a place.

My team and I take pride in our customer service and the empathy we feel for parents going through this process, and we advise them of their right of appeal and all that entails.

We often have tears and upset 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!

Harry, one of the pupils featured sits at a desk

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, parents/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.

I really hope the viewers gain a better understanding of how the admission process works, how hard we work to ensure the process is fair and robust (for example checking home addresses), and that parents/carers know where and how to access information in order for them to make informed decisions about how to apply for a school place.

Julie Newbold is head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council and features in The Big School Lottery.

The Big School Lottery starts on Tuesday, 7 September at 9pm on BBC Two and is part of the channel's School Season.

You can read Lesley Wilson's post on the BBC parents' blog about her experience as a mother going through the admissions process on The Big School Lottery.

To find out all future episodes of The Big School Lottery please visit the show's upcoming episode page.


  • Comment number 1.

    Quote of the night: 'You've put one school down three times'. Genius. Give that girl a promotion!

  • Comment number 2.

    The admissions system is a joke. I selected 4 schools for my son, two of which were less than 4 miles from my home and on the route to my work. My son did not get any of his choices and was given The International which is 4 miles from our home in the opposite direction to my work place. There are at least 4 schools closer to home. I was told that my son would be entitled to a free bus pass but when I checked it out he is not eligable because I did not select the school closest to us and then been refused. I have three children so now my other two children will unlikely get their choices and instead be offered the International because their brother goes there. This means it will cost me over £60 a month in bus passes to send my children to a Grade 3 (was grade 4) school. They will have to leave the house at 7:15am and catch 2 buses.

  • Comment number 3.

    I watched the programme which was interesting but was distracted by the fact that there appeared to be something of a fashion show by Ms Newbold who appeared to be wearing a different and very expensive outfit every time she appeared before the camera. Perhaps local council taxpayers money might be better used for education rather then apparently funding the wardrobe of one of its senior managers

  • Comment number 4.

    I found the excessive use and promotion of paper applications in this documentary rather disturbing. Hasn't Birmingham heard of the ineternet and applications online. This might have prevented the 3 identical applications using a simple validation check (and saved officer checking time as well). In addition what is are highly (some might say too highly) paid local education officers doing travelling around in pairs checking up on applicant addresses...don't they have access to the council tax records or the electoral roll? It certainly might rack up the overtime but appeared to do little for address checking.
    Overall this documentary illustrated the excessive waste of local authority resources in undertaking out of date processes using old technologies.

  • Comment number 5.

    I watched the 1st 2 programmes with my mouth open with surprise,and disgust. As a parent of 2 secondary school children I have never had to go through this procedure. We live in Scotland where I think the system is a lot better. When enrolling my children in our local High school we filled out a form, and then received the transistion letters via primary. Up here there is no such thing as a poor performing school. If your child does not go to the catchment school, it is up to the parent to either pay for school travel to the school they choose or pay for private education.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thank God I don't live in Birmingham; your selection process is a sham. I feel sorry for those in this program, the parents and their children.

    Julie, your Authority doesn't have enough schools to go around so you use the 11-plus as a smokescreen for allowing children from affluent families, who can afford preparatory schooling, to get into Grammar Schools. Instead of checking whether poor families live in catchment areas why don't you clamp down on those who can afford private primary education from getting into state maintained Grammar Schools, which are actually supported by the tax payer.

    To quote the teacher at one of your Grammar Schools...

    "selection on ability is better than selection on house prices". Bull! All things ain't equal. Kids stand a better chance if their parents can afford coaching."

    Your system reminds me of 1930s Berlin and its test of feeblemindedness.


  • Comment number 7.

    I thought Julie and her team did a difficult job with tact and good humour.Agree with person above who says it shouldn't be possible to put the same school three times - would online formfilling at the primary schools be a good idea?
    The expectations of some parents were a little worrying and didn't always take the personality of their child into account.Saffiyah's parents have given her ambition, confidence and a balanced view of life -a brilliant achievement and perhaps as important as the extra tuition.
    Loved the shot of Thomas and his friends sitting on the outhouse roof chatting, lovely group of boys with positive realistic attitudes and supportive of each other.
    Really felt for Simone, good that she has a family around her. Ideally her son should get a good school with a high quality teaching wherever he goes.
    When is the government, any government going to really raise the standard? Every child should have the opportunities enjoyed by the Bluecoat boys. No parents should have to pay for (often dubious) tuition to 'top up' what their 10 year old learns in school. Our children, all of them, are our future.

  • Comment number 8.

    I live in Birmingham. I have been through the process three times. Two successful, both first choices and Grammars. One unsuccessful, not one of the six choices. I believe the system to work extremely well and was impressed with Julie Newbold and the Birmingham team, so interesting how the whole process comes together. I want the best for my children and getting into Grammar is not necessarily about how much money you have, I am not 'loaded' but encouraged my children to work and study hard knowing that the system we have in Birmingham was available to me.I dont live in a posh area where there are good comprehensives, so have had to push even harder to get them into these Grammars. As I said my one child did not get any of his choices, the school he eventually went to turned out to be excellent for him and his GCSE grades were then good enough for him to move to a much better sixth form of his choice. Ah and well done to Mozim, his parents should be very proud of him, not disappointed that he did not get his first choice (his fourth) there choice of schools were all excellent.

  • Comment number 9.

    The people of Birmingham deserve better than a selective school system that places so much stress on their children, and waste months (or even years) of their children's lives cramming for tests with little or no educational value. Saffiyah is clever and hard working but shouldn't she have been playing with her little sister or experimenting with her creative writing or taking part in genuinely educational extension programs for gifted children for the past year, not trying to fill her brain with as many synonyms and antonyms as humanly possible? There are children at the school my daughter attends who have been receiving private tutoring since Year 2. Yes, since infant school! That can't be right surely? All sense of the true value of education is lost admist this competitive frenzy to get into the 'best' school. I don't want any part of it. I'd prefer my child to enjoy childhood, to love learning for its own sake, and to mix with children of all backgrounds and abilities.

  • Comment number 10.

    How ridiculous that we cannot rely on the local school to provide adequate education! School comparison lists are totally stupid all schools will either be 50% above average or 50% below, that will never change, however good they are. The whole point is to raise standards. Why cannot the government provide schools with lesson plans and teaching material that meet the National Curriculum? Why should teachers re-invent the wheel every day, or provide their own sub standards versions. How stupid we don't share good practice and instead have bodies like OFSTED that criticise. Why don't we have schools improvement bodies that discuss and share good practice, with everyone benefiting. Why do we look for failing! Wouldn't it be better to make sure every school has to meet a good standard. Wouldn't this save environmentally on transport as well. As for choice of schools this is ridiculous, everyone who gets in a "good school" forces some one else into a rubbish one. How thick can MP's be to not realise this. Steven Blake mba.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hey Birmingham LEA, what don't you:

    - provide enough school places for all kids to attend their local school (so that parents don't have to commit fraud)?
    - tell your managers not to patronise the public with euphimisms?
    - ask Julie to turn the lights off when she clocks out?

  • Comment number 12.

    This is the first time I have blogged with BBC, and felt sufficiently motivated to do so straight after watching this wonderful, revealing, human programme. You expertly juxtaposed each child's venture into their new worlds - in such a sensitive way - and I was moved, and angered, by the way that different schools welcomed children into their new communities. So sad that the first experience that many of our children have of their new learning environment is based on fear, rules and regulations. The juxtaposition of the children's obvious disengagement on Day 1 contrasted markedly with other schools where education was clearly going to be the start of something amazing. Riveting viewing. I haven't felt so frustrated watching a programme for years!!

  • Comment number 13.

    To everyone who says the 11-plus is discriminatory against working class people I sat and passed the 11-plus in 1986 and i live in a deprived area of birmingham featured in the programme and went to one of the Schools 'Handsworth Grammar' featured in the programme. I had no private tuition and i was given no extra help by anyone and was not the only one from my primary school which is in hockley in birmingham, who went on to pass the 11-plus. In my first year class At Handsworth Grammar In 1986 off the top of my head i can think of at least half if not more of the pupils in my class who came from working class backgrounds. It is more about giving your children to believe they can achieve and if they try and not to write off the possibility of a good education without trying

  • Comment number 14.

    Perhaps we should not be getting so upset about selection on ability when we already seem to happily select on gender and/or religion. At least it is possible to improve ones ability in the right environment. As for the other two?!


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