The consultation over a fundamental change to our school system notwithstanding, applications are currently open for transfer to middle school in 2020. We look at how the middle-school landscape has changed in the last few years, and the options that are now open to children moving into Year 5 in September.

Before September 2017, the vast majority of children from Fairfield Park Lower School (FPLS) moved up to Etonbury Academy. In spite of 30 years of “parental choice” there was actually very little real choice in our area – a quirk of our location almost outside Bedfordshire, the fact that Hertfordshire has a different school system with no entry point at Year 5, the ever-rising housing growth and the high birth rate. Etonbury was not just our catchment school, it was the only school at which there was a good chance of securing a place. Until there wasn’t. 

In 2017, as before, almost all Fairfield families chose Etonbury, but only about half were offered places there; the rest were allocated Henlow Church of England Academy. This was a bolt from the blue. Henlow was a good school, but for various reasons had never been a realistic option before and very few parents had considered it, so the decision about where children went to school that year was based not on parental choice (as the system intends), or on tradition (as had largely been the case before), but on luck: those living closest to Etonbury were accepted by Etonbury; those furthest away were not, and went to Henlow.

The following year, Henlow once again made additional places available, but this time they did so upfront, effectively giving parents a choice between two realistic options for the very first time. Most families visited both, and many chose Henlow. Admissions criteria were changed to ensure that all those with siblings at the school were high in the pecking order even if they lived outside of the catchment area – securing future places for the siblings of those who went there from Fairfield in 2017 and 2018. 

By the time the 2019 applications round opened there was a clear split between Henlow and Etonbury families in Fairfield. Around a third of the children in last year’s Year 4 cohort had older siblings at one or other school and there was little doubt that the younger siblings would follow them there. 

For parents without children already at middle school, however, the situation was far less certain: Henlow was no longer offering additional places, and Etonbury also seemed unlikely to have space for Fairfield children who didn’t have siblings already there. In this new age of informed choice, most parents visited both anyway, and also attended the many meetings and consultations hosted by a potential new school, Pix Brook Academy. 

Whether Pix Brook would be ready in time remained uncertain until long after applications closed, but ultimately, the majority of those who did not already have children at another middle school made it their first choice – and it seems to have got off to a good start. The new school is currently based in its own dedicated premises on the Etonbury site, with work now underway on the Pix Brook permanent building, which will open on its own site in September 2020.

So where does that leave this year’s applicants? Fairfield parents are again in the enviable position of having two realistic options – this time they are Etonbury Academy and Pix Brook Academy. Both give precedence to children from Fairfield, Stotfold and Arlesey over others living outside of catchment. There is no guarantee of a place at either, but with a Published Admissions Number of 180 each, there are around 100 more places in total than there are pupils at the four feeder schools, so there is the security of knowing that you can expect a place at one or the other. 

Henlow, a popular school with a PAN of 140, is likely to be fairly full from its own catchment so is unlikely to offer a place to anyone living as far away as Fairfield who doesn’t either have special circumstances such as a sibling already there, or meet the school’s faith criteria. The same goes for other schools outside our area. However, there are enough Fairfield children already at Henlow that it will continue to take siblings from here for some time to come – and in a system which now has plenty of places available, there is always the chance that other applicants from out of catchment will be successful too.

With all that in mind, parental choice is very likely to affect where children go to middle school in the future – and one of the best ways to get a feel for a school is at an open evening. Henlow held a ‘school at work’ evening for parents and children on Thursday 7 Nov, which will be followed by an adults-only information evening on Wednesday 13 Nov, 7–9pm. Etonbury’s open evening is on Thursday 21 Nov, 5–7pm, and Pix Brook brings up the tail with its event on Wednesday 27 Nov, 6–8pm. 

Applications for middle school places can be made online through CBC’s website and must be received by 15 January 2020.