Why It Matters: Camden’s Hidden School Places Black Hole

In boroughs such as ours, where the number of primary school places does not match the number of 5-year-olds, kids can simply slip into the void

Finding a ‘good’ school. Now there’s an age old topic. Or how about finding a school altogether? An increasingly pressing topic in boroughs such as ours, where the number of primary school places available simply does not match the number of 5-year-olds.

This year in Camden, 153 kids did not get a place in April, despite an application process that asks parents to list up to 6 choices. And then there are the children, like my daughter, who didn’t get offered any of our choice of local schools and declined the random place offered elsewhere. How many of these cases there are around here’s unknown, since if an offered place is declined, Camden consider the child has been ‘withdrawn’ from the process and they enter a statistical black hole.

I’ve always cringed at earnest conversation about ‘good’ schools. Having been through the local state school system (attending the very school my daughter now can’t get into) the clichéd dinner party dialogue, with all its pushy ambition, blatant snobbery and peer group panic makes me feel uncomfortable.

Wanting the best for your offspring is a universal impulse, regularly leading people to lose all sense of perspective – faking faith, moving house at vastly inflated costs and all other deranged practices that have become normalised in the quest for the coveted ‘good’ school.


So now I find myself as a parent in Camden in 2012 squeezed into this bizarre melee regardless of my previously relaxed views. Forced to have exactly these dreaded, fussy conversations whether I like it or not. Oh dear!

Article continues below advertisement

Camden clearly needs to build more schools, as the much reported situations in South Euston and Belsize Park continue to support. There is also a direct correlation between the number of fee-paying schools in an area and a lack of places in state ones. Here in Camden 29% of kids are in paid-for education, compared to 6.5% nationally. That should do it. Then we have a high number of religious schools around here too, truly the last bastions of legal discrimination in our otherwise civilised modern society.

So, with huge pressures from all these forces, an illusion of choice and a centralised system that awards places on sketchy geographical grounds, parents in the ‘hidden’ stats black hole, who can’t/won’t either pay, pray or travel for places, have to look at home schooling their kids.

There are estimated to be 60k children being taught at home in the UK. Unlike the US, where it’s also a much bigger phenomenon due to remote locations and religious convictions, here in the UK it’s often bullying that leads to home schooling, and now increasingly a lack of school places too.

Kentishtowner reader Steve Verrall (he of the legendary 4am Talacre gymnastics class queue) is facing exactly this situation, still considering down a place offered at a school on the far side of the borough to where his family lives. They’ve found mixed reactions to the prospect of home schooling for their daughter.

‘It’d be nice to have the confidence that you are OK not sending your kid to school,’ he says. ‘That they aren’t missing out on anything, that they’ll be fine, and have conviction in your beliefs. But it’s hard to feel like that when your friends are all sending their kids off to school. It would be better to be embarking on this 100% out of choice and not just because of a lack of options.’

Much like other inter-parental hot potatoes such as breastfeeding and vaccinations, there is a surprising amount of opinionated social pressure that suddenly bears down on parents looking at home schooling. In the face of the whiff of stigma that supposes you are almost joining a hippy cult, many parents may crumble and accept any place, despite the daily commute or unsuitability of the school to their child.

As we stare these various unsatisfactory options in the face with only weeks to go until the start of the new school year, it would be good to hear from other parents in the area on the choices they have made or had to make, particularly on home schooling.

This matters, because those of us lost in Camden’s statistics black hole may reveal some facts and trends. Data that could help ease this competitive, skewed and unhappy situation for future years of 5-year-olds who ultimately just want to go to the same school as their friends.

Words: Tom (& Mrs Z) Kihl

Why It Matters is published in association with Discount Insurance.


  • Show Comments

  • Gavin Juniper

    I hear so many opinions on schools when I’m in the cafe it’s mindboggling. I got asked where to move to to get into a good school by people that lived in Lissenden Gardens. My reply was don’t move, Gospel Oak is great. “Oh, we heard it’s not.” Frankly, it’s actually brilliant on many levels. I heard of there being lots of spaces at Carlton but of people in Belsize being unwilling to travel there. I hear that the once almighty Fleet is now even more oversubscribed due to the siblings rule, so there’s a need there. Then there’s New End, where a Dad moved his kid from Gospel Oak to when he lives about 30 yards from GO. I understand the council are to build a school in West Hampstead where the demand is highest, but that leaves nothing for a school in Belsize. Then there’s the Free School debate….

  • Gary

    We were offered none of our chosen six schools for our son. Including our two nearest and most preferred – Gospel Oak and Brookfield. The latter is at the end of our road. A boy yards nearer to the school… just two doors up… has been given a place. We appealed Gospel Oak and Brookfield but both appeals were rejected on the basis of ‘class size prejudice’. We have been offered a place at Carlton but we are not prepared to go there. We want our son to be educated within his community… amongst his friends and neighbours, at a decent school. We don’t want to leave the area. We have a great life here with good friends and we love the Heath. To uproot everything that we have worked towards and drag our lives either to another part of London or worse.. to leave London altogether is unthinkable. We were sold the promise of choice. But the choice of education for our son is apparently out of our control.This baby boom could surely have been anticipated and planned for five years ago. In the meantime we are stressed, angry and living in limbo.

    • worriedparent

      Why weren’t you prepared to go to Carlton?

      I ask because we are approaching the school application deadline and I have heard a lot of people say that they would never send their child to Carlton, to the extent that they sell up and move, or rent somewhere else or a year or two. But I have been unable to pin down precisely why they wouldn’t. Ofsted report is a 2 (Good) same as Gospel Oak, it seemed fine when we visited, with an impressive dynamic Head, and a parent we spoke to whose child goes there seems happy with it. I wondered if it it was the nature of the intake that put middle-class parents off but Gospel Oak surely has very similar demographic and people seem happy to let their kids go there.

      But everybody else can’t be wrong, can they?

  • Mrs Tom Kihl

    Gary- Camden apparently knows about the baby boom. It knows that Camden’s population has been rising and the council forecasts an upward trend every year. I’m not sure why corresponding number of reception places haven’t been sorted…..but my guess is- huge funding cuts. Then there is also the fact that Camden borough has the second highest numbers in London in terms of private schools so the council probably expect parents to pay for education as the solution. Oh….what to do, what to do?

    • dorrit

      Why does no one look at this problem from the point of view of the real reason for it? The real reason for it is the Class Size Prejudice, or this law that says that there can be only be 30 children in an infant class. This law came into being in 1998. We are now in 2013, 15 years later. The number of children in London boroughs now, is much, much larger then it was in 1998! This law must change (especially in London)!
      A good teacher can teach a bigger class then 30, especially when all classes have teaching assistants as well.r

  • Gavin Juniper

    Our two sons couldn’t get a place at Fleet when we lived at that end of the ‘hood. They went to Carlton but ended up only being there for one term. Then two kids left Fleet and they got offered the places. Admittedly that was 10 years ago. Worht talking to GO and Brookfield about what the last couple of years drop out rates were like.

  • Matthew

    I sympathise with the writer and with the dozens of other parents and kids in Camden and Islington who are wondering what the hell to do about finding a school for their child. I picked 6 schools within half a mile away and was allocated one over 2 miles away. Because of my unfortunate address on the edge this won’t change unless they build a school. Oddly Islington are actually closing schools and Camden have no plans to build more. It is surprising, given the seriousness of the situation, how hard it is to allocate responsibility – either with schools or the local authority. I even overheard the Mayor of Camden last week bemoaning the chaotic mistake that was made when boroughs were given the job of overseeing education post the dissolution of the ILEA. I laughed when I heard that Toby Young was opening a school. I am not now…….

  • Noella

    Finding primary schools for your children is highly stressful and my heart goes out to all parents whose children don’t get a place.

    My tuppence worth is that it’s unfair to blame the shortage of places exclusively on Camden – this is a London-wide issue and councils across London are lobbying the government for more money to sort this out.

    My other point is that my little one goes to Carlton and I’m a parent governor there. Despite it getting ‘good’ with elements of outstanding in its Ofsted and us feeling welcome there, we were put off because of hearsay and ‘middle class’ parents we knew being unprepared to send their kids there.

    Needless to say, we had no choice in the end but actually it worked out for the best. We’re really happy with Carlton.

  • Gavin Juniper

    I too find the snobbery about Carlton a bit odd. It’s a lovely building and the kids there always look happy. Ours still talk about when they went there, even though it was for a short time.

  • Gavin Juniper

    as if by magic, here’s the release about the new NW6 primary school. http://www.camden.gov.uk/ccm/content/news/2012/july/More-primary-school-places-proposed.en

  • Mrs Tom Kihl

    Just my two cents worth. My take is- some parents aren’t comfortable sending their child to a particular school for whatever reason/s that might be. It could be a concrete reason, biased perspective/hearsay, distance or the uniform sucks 🙂 Whatever the reason/s is, there will be conclusions why some schools are deemed better while others aren’t. Ultimately, as a parent, you want to feel confident about the school you have chosen for your child. After all, the child will be in school for 6 hours every day.

    • Noella

      I agree that it’s entirely up to each parent to work out what’s best for their child, and I really hope it didn’t come across as if I was suggesting otherwise. It must be so stressful for you right now and I do feel for you.

      Think we’re all agreed that decisions about a child’s education are not to be taken lightly, whether ‘one’ decides to home-school, go private, send them to a state school or whatever. The reason I became a governor at Carlton was initially selfish – I wanted to make sure my own son would be okay – as it goes he’s fine and I’ve made other contributions to the school instead.

      I think my point was simply that getting involved in the board and having my son at Carlton has given me a proper perspective on the school, which I didn’t have before. Also just to convey to other parents that we’re really happy at Carlton, whether they choose to send their own children there or not.

      But as I say, ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide what works best for their own nippers.

  • Clio Whittaker

    This is a horrible situation for everyone – children, parents, and for schools, as well. The selection process is now out of the hands of individual heads and governors (rightly, in my view) but I can’t think of any who would feel happy about disappointing people who wanted to be involved with their school.

    We had the same experience at the beginning of the secondary phase 10 years ago, although the allocation system was even less transparent then. Some people were able to hang on to multiple offers until the day before the autumn term started…

    As Gavin Juniper points out, inevitably some children will move on and some spaces in Camden schools will be freed up as time passes. I know that doesn’t address the need for more provision overall, but don’t forget that, in terms of learning, it’s what’s happening at home that has the biggest impact at this stage of children’s development.

    It’s very hard to explain to a 5-year-old that it is the system that is at fault, rather than anything to do with them. But it’s so important that they feel confident that their parents are going to be able to find a way to sort things out – even if you don’t know how you’re going to do that right now.

    Happy to provide an ear if that would help…

  • Mrs Tom Kihl

    Thank you Noella and Clio. Ultimately we just want to feel that the decision we have made is OK. The amount of research I have done on home schooling has been interesting and certainly helped me (and the husband) to gain some solid perspective about the whole thing. Of course, our daughter will be happier to be moving on to the school where she’s currently in the nursery with the rest of her friends. We’ve explained to her that this will not happen and she’ll be at home for the time being, learning with her mummy. As you kindly pointed out Clio, she doesn’t understand the reason/s behind this, but happily accepts our decision (which we hope is the right one for now).

    • Claire Bankhead

      For all us parents about to enter the fray for 2013 reception places, it would be great to know how it turned out for you. Did you go ahead with home schooling for the whole year? Did a place miraculously become available in your chosen school? Or did somewhere else come up nearby?

      We know we’re sitting just outside the catchment area for all our chosen schools – including the one where our daughter currently has a nursery place. We’re in a kind of educational desert island. So am casting around for encouraging stories of things turning out OK in the end…

      • Mrs Tom Kihl

        Hi Claire,
        We made the decision to home educate despite the initial ‘raised eyebrows’ reactions from some people. We were just not prepared to send her to a school that we did not feel comfortable with. Since then, I have joined some home educate networks across London, made contact with several helpful people and we have been to various trips with other home educated families. Luckily, there are now two home educate groups meeting weekly around our area, which is great, as it means there are more people home educating around us than I initially thought. Our daughter is thriving as we build a curriculum around her, balancing between her interests and national requirements.
        It is a tough decision for any parent with regards to schooling, I don’t think there’s any easy solution. It has certainly been a journey of learning for Tom and me. We have no regrets over the decision we have made.
        She still has a way to go before reaching the ‘top’ of the waiting list for the school we would like her to go. And it might be in Year 1 or Year 2 before she finally has a place. So we are enjoying this home education time with her and look at it as a wonderful opportunity.

        Good luck to you and hope she gets a place in your chosen school.

  • Gavin Juniper

    By the way, you can get superb advice from a local expert on all of this. Fiona Millar is on twitter @schooltruth – she is dedicated and passionate about all things educational. She helped with advice on us getting our dyspraxic son extra tuition at school.

  • Clio Whittaker

    Sounds like you are handling this stressful situation in the best way possible, Mr and Mrs Tom. Keep calm and carry on!

  • Shellie

    Just found this site on a trip down memory lane and wanted to stick my two pennies in.

    I went to Carlton Primary School and am just about to embark on a PhD. So kids that went to Carlton turn out ok!