By Linda Tanner, Education Correspondent / firstname.lastname@example.org
A review is starting this month to try to improve the way parents are dealt with by Bristol City Council when they apply for primary school places for their children.
Over the past few years, many people have said problems getting information about admissions have created extra stress at an already anxious time.
Schools across Bristol face extreme pressure for places because of a rapidly increasing child population.
The council estimates it will have to create at least 3,000 places – the equivalent of 14 small schools – by 2015.
The high demand means many families cannot be allocated one of their three preferred schools and have to be offered places at primaries some distance from their home.
After difficulties in 2009, when 300 parents were not initially offered any school, the council ordered an independent inquiry into its procedures. Among its 28 recommendations were a number designed to improve the admissions service.
In response to questions from parent campaigners, cabinet councillor Clare Campion-Smith said last week new trained staff had been appointed to deal with incoming calls and had been given extensive training.
She said parent focus groups would be involved in the new review, which would be conducted by a project manager “with a specific aim of customer service improvement”.
“The review will also look at the IT systems currently being used to assess their capability to deal with parental expectations of immediate information.
“The new council website will enable more timely updates from individual teams to ensure the latest information is available without having to speak directly to a member of the team.”
For 2011 places, the council used email for the first time to inform parents of offers. But many received the wrong email, congratulating them on being allocated their first-choice school, when they had not been offered any of their preferences. Other parents said their applications seemed to have been lost.
Mrs Campion-Smith said this had been investigated and no child had been disadvantaged.
“There were a number of issues with the database that meant it was not always possible to give accurate real-time information to telephone inquiries. The main issue causing this has been identified and remedied. It is very important, though, parents are given a service that is helpful and gives confidence.”
Mrs Campion-Smith told the questioners, Mark Sinclair, Lorraine Woodward, Andrew Davies and Frances Cope, the council had been aware of the steep citywide rise in demand but said it was difficult to predict exactly where places would be needed until applications were received.
The council was continuing to work with schools to create additional places as well as looking for sites for new schools.
“Year-on-year rises mean extra places are required each year; there are no pauses for consolidation and the straightforward solutions are exhausted. Every child in Bristol whose parents applied for a reception place was offered one,” she said.
Mr Sinclair said he and other campaigners would continue to work, through the group Bristol Primary Admissions Crisis, to support parents applying for places in 2012 and beyond and to keep up the pressure on the council to continue improving the service.