Two popular Brighton secondary schools will not take any extra bulge classes

Two of Brighton and Hove’s biggest secondary schools have no space for more children for the next two years, concerned parents were told this week.

The parents were told that Varndean School and Dorothy Stringer both lacked the space in their classrooms, corridors, toilets and canteen for a bulge class of 30 pupils each.

Instead, parents said that 62 children faced travelling miles every day to and from their new secondary school on starting year 7 in September – a situation likely to be repeated next year.

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Four parents from the Dorothy Stringer and Varndean catchment asked Brighton and Hove City Council why it would not add extra classes so that children could go to school near their home.

Varndean’s year 7 capacity was permanently increased to 300 pupils in 2018 and Dorothy Stringer added a bulge class three years running, lifting its capacity from 330 to 360 until last September.

But school leaders from both schools told a cross-party working group of councillors before Christmas that neither school could take an extra class from next September.

One mother, Iona-Jane Harris, asked about the issue at a virtual meeting of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee on Monday (March 8).

She said: “Children have suffered so much during the past 12 months of the covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown.

“Can the council advise why the mental health and wellbeing of 62 children is not being prioritised within the decision-making process in relation to secondary school places this year?”

Outside of the meeting Mrs Harris said: “I’m doing this because my daughter has had her choice of secondary school taken away from her.

“After a really challenging year, she is being asked to manage yet more uncertainty – about something hugely significant in her life – where she is going to secondary school.

“She has been given none of her three preferred and closest schools (Varndean, Dorothy Stringer and Patcham).

“There are seven state schools closer to us than the one we have been allocated. How is this supporting the emotional welfare of young people to uproot them and place them so far from their communities?”

Green councillor Hannah Clare said that the Brighton and Hove Inclusion Support Service would contact families to establish which young people would need additional support.

Councillor Clare, who chairs the Children, Young People and Skills Committee, said that the council was also looking at the transport issues.

She said: “Councillors are very aware of the impact of the allocations. All our secondary schools are good but we understand the anguish this has caused for a minority of pupils who have missed out on their preferences.

“We took this issue really seriously so we considered whether bulge classes could be used to address the problem.

“In considering whether bulge classes are appropriate, the capacity – whether the schools could safely absorb considerable additional numbers – had to be considered.

“We have concluded that they cannot safely absorb the numbers required on top of the additional numbers they have already taken.”

Councillor Clare said that Dorothy Stringer previously took on extra pupils knowing that it would have extra facilities.

It “crammed” four temporary classrooms on to its site to help cope with the 90 extra pupils in its bulge classes.

Building work is under way at Varndean because its bulge classes have become a permanent increase in pupil numbers.

In addition, an extra class this year would create timetable problems as well as causing overcrowding in corridors, toilets and the canteen.

Councillor Clare said that there was room in other local schools, all rated “good” by Ofsted.

While Varndean and Stringer look likely to be oversubscribed again next year, the pressure could then ease.

Council projections suggested that after 2023 the number of children expected to start at the two schools would be below the 630 capacity.

Councillor Clare said: “Taking everything into account, the council and schools have reached a joint decision that making the schools even bigger is not going to be the right thing for schools in the city.

“I do appreciate that for young people and families involved, understanding why this decision has been taken offers small comfort.”

Another parent, George Harris, asked why parents were told at Dorothy Stringer’s open days that it would take 360 pupils.

Councillor Clare said that the correct admission number of 330 was on the application papers.

Another parent, Laura Aziz, asked when councillors decided to reduce the intake at Dorothy Stringer.

In 2018, both Varndean and Stringer agreed to add bulge classes until admissions fell, which was predicted to happen this year.

And another parent, Laura Murphy, said: “For the years 2018, 2019 and 2020, millions of pounds were spent to allow all the children in the catchment to attend one of their local schools.

“This decision in 2018 was made after school allocations were announced. In light of this, why are our children not worth spending basic needs funding for additional places when year seven children for the last three years were worth it?”

Councillor Clare said that it was not a matter of worth but about the physical space available to accommodate pupils.

Varndean and Stringer had more than 1,000 applications for the combined 630 places available this year.

Forty-four of the 62 children from the catchment who missed out had applied for both schools.

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition calling on the council to look again at school numbers for Stringer and Varndean.

The petition is due to be presented at a meeting of the full council on Thursday March 25.