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School places 'nightmare' facing families moving to Stortford's new estates

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Stortford Fields masterplan. (7883180)
Stortford Fields masterplan. (7883180)

A single mum has shared her “nightmare” struggle to find school places in Bishop’s Stortford as a lesson to other families moving to the town’s new estates.

Margherita Caporale, an NHS manager at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, had to rely on social media to find a primary place for her youngest son and secured secondary places for her older son and daughter under her own steam after hitting a brick wall with Herts County Council.

The family moved from Waltham Abbey to a Taylor Wimpey new-build at Stortford Fields in February, ready to start a new life. Margherita said: “Bishop’s Stortford has always been a favourite place of mine.”

To ensure a smooth transition for children Cecilia, 13, Benjamin, 12, and Zachary, 5, she contacted HCC – the local education authority – a month before she completed the purchase process.

She said: “I was told at the time that the applications wouldn’t be ‘touched’ until I could provide some proof of residency. I queried that on the basis that it is incredibly stressful for a family to move to a new place with no schools sorted for their children. They said ‘rules are rules’.

“I finally moved into my new home and I was able to provide the required documentation, thinking that at that point it would be a mere formality to get my children into schools. How wrong could I be?”

She says she then called the council more than 15 times and emailed too for progress reports but was repeatedly told there was no update.

In desperation, she contacted Birchwood High School, which controls its own admissions, and secured places for Cecilia and Benjamin. But she was forced to pay £60 a day for a childminder to care for Zachary while she worked. She was told her first choice, Hillmead, was full and other primaries were being approached.

It was only when she vented her frustration on Facebook that a governor at All Saints Primary in Parsonage Lane stepped in to help.

Margherita, who moved to the UK from Italy 22 years ago, said: “If I hadn’t kicked up a fuss on social media, Zac would still be out of school. He got All Saints in the end, the other side of town and no available childcare, but beggars can’t be choosers.

“I have highlighted a problem that is bound to get much bigger, and I wouldn’t want any family to go through what I had to go through.”

She said: “Isn’t education a basic right in this country? How can they justify leaving a child and a whole family in limbo like that?

"Is this what Bishop's Stortford wants to be known for? A place where they are ready to take the developers’ big money to let them build hundreds of new homes when the infrastructure is completely lacking?

"I have been so looking forward to living in your beautiful town but my experience so far has been traumatic.”

A spokesman for HCC confirmed Margherita’s claim that the placement process could not even begin until she had completed her house sale purchase – even with a letter from her solicitor – but said it had tried to help subsequently.

He added: “Admissions and planning officers from Hertfordshire County Council are in constant and ongoing communication with schools in Bishop's Stortford to ensure that children across the area, including those that move into the new housing developments, can access local school places.”

Cllr Colin Woodward, the county councillor for Stortford Fields, said other families had not faced the same problems. He added that Zac could remain on a “continued interest list” for Hillmead if a place becomes available.

He said newly-released statistics show the pressure for places at secondary schools in Herts. This year's cohort has risen in size with 460 more applicants (up 2.53%) – 18,645 compared with 18,185 last year, including 14,714 from within Herts itself, up 539 (3.8%) from 14,175.

Some 92.99% of applicants were allocated a ranked school and 75.25% got their first-choice school, down from 94.42% and 78.17% respectively in 2018.

Two new primary schools and a secondary school are planned to serve more than 2,500 homes at Stortford Fields and St Michael’s Hurst but construction has not yet begun. The first primary is set to open by 2020 and the secondary in 2022.

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