Thousands of parents have either refused to send their children to school this term or are planning to withdraw them because they are unhappy with the place they have been given.
Nearly 100,000 pupils have failed to get into their preferred secondary school this year, prompting criticism from parents that the Government's claim to be offering more choice in education is an empty boast.
Some children have already missed a week of education after their parents refused to let them start the new term because they had been given places at schools which they regard as unacceptable, a survey by The Independent has found.
The survey, which gives the most comprehensive national picture of school admissions, suggests today that more than 20,000 families have appealed against the school they were allocated to try to get a place elsewhere.
It comes just days after a distraught father threw himself under a train after threatening suicide unless his local council relented and allowed his daughter to attend her chosen school.
Steve Don, a 43-year-old surveyor from Brighton, had become increasingly distressed that his 11-year-old daughter had been rejected by their local comprehensive. Parents' leaders said the incident showed the extreme pressure facing parents over school admissions while the widespread dissatisfaction revealed in the survey showed that the "situation had spiralled out of all control".
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "It is definitely a problem that is growing. The Government has created a fragmented system of specialist schools and academies. These schools choose parents. Parents definitely don't have the power to choose schools."
The survey shows that the issue is not restricted to the London area, which is known to have particular problems because so many schools and pupils are concentrated in a relatively small area. This year for the first time the 33 London councils plus eight areas just outside the capital have agreed to co-ordinate their admissions in an attempt to ensure that more families win places at the schools they want. Under the new system each family can apply to up to six schools in any area operating the scheme. But many families have failed to get a place at any of the six state schools they applied to.
David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary and candidate for the Tory leadership, blamed the Government's policies for the crisis in school admissions and argued that the Conservatives would do more to increase parental choice of school. "The sooner we give parents choice, and autonomy to schools in the admissions process, the better," he said.
The findings show the rising levels of discontent among parents. Tina Fern, from Richmond in south-west London, has kept her daughter at home. Victoria, 11, has missed the first week of term and will remain off school while the family appeals against the decision to refuse her a place at Waldegrave School, the borough's only all-girls' school, which is a short walk from their home. Victoria has been offered a place at a large mixed comprehensive which her mother argues is "the worst in the borough". Mrs Fern said: "All the Government's talk about parental choice is absolute rubbish. We haven't had any choice at all."
Maya Brown, 11: 'Talk of choice is rubbish'
Maya Brown's parents face school fees of £9,200 a year after they say they were forced to send her to a private school because she was rejected by every state school they applied to.
Maya, 11, from Brixton, south London, was left without a secondary school place after all six comprehensives refused her a place. Last week, she started at Streatham & Clapham High School, a private girls' school, a 20-minute bus ride from their home.
"We feel totally let down by the system," said her father Everard, a business adviser. "Paying school fees will obviously put a strain on our finances."
Her parents are angry they were forced to turn to the private sector, arguing they had always wanted Maya to attend a local state school.
"We are heading more and more to a divided education system. All the well-connected individuals will get their children into the good schools and everyone else will find themselves shut out by the system."
He dismissed government talk of parental choice as "a load of rubbish". "It is obvious that schools are choosing parents rather than parents choosing schools."
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