70,000 pupils are denied first-choice school

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The parents of more than 70,000 pupils have failed to get their children into their first-choice secondary school, proving that parent power is a myth.

The parents of more than 70,000 pupils have failed to get their children into their first-choice secondary school, proving that parent power is a myth.

A survey by The Independent today shows that a further 5,700 did not even have an offer of a place when the deadline for local education authorities to make an offer expired. This means thousands of parents will face months of agony in the run-up to September to find a school for their children.

Parents' leaders last night blamed "political rhetoric" for fooling parents into believing they had a right to send their children to the school of their choice.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said that - as a handful of top performing schools became more popular - many schools ended up choosing the parents rather than the other way round.

The survey is the first national picture of the problem in England as research so far has concentrated on the London area - thought to have particular problems over admissions because so many schools are packed into an urban environment.

Mrs Morrissey said: "The Government was able in some ways to say this was a local problem because we always seemed to be talking about London. This shows it has become an issue in almost every single part of the country."

In Birmingham one in three of the 15,000 pupils seeking secondary school places failed to get their first choice. Other blackspots highlighted include Derby (where only 75.8 per cent were successful) and Bournemouth (76.6 per cent).

Of those who had not been offered a place, education officials said many put their requests in late.

The figures showed that nationwide there were70,000-80,000 unsuccessful applications - roughly 14 per cent of the total.

Parents' leaders say school exam league tables draw parents to successful schools, increasing competition for places.

In addition, a High Court ruling over admissions procedures in Greenwich, south London, said education authorities could not bar parents living in other boroughs from their schools.

Elsewhere, parents pretend they have moved into the catchment area or rent empty space to try to prove that they live in it.

Delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Telford this weekend will demand an urgent review of the system to make it "fair and transparent".

David Hart, the union's general secretary, said there was now a "pecking order" of schools.

"Parents are rapidly not getting their first, second, third, fourth or even fifth choice as they all chase after the same schools," he said.

Both Labour and the Torieshighlighted school choice in their election campaigns. Both are pledged to allow popular schools to expand. The Liberal Democrats accused them of "pandering to this illusion of choice for parents".

Mrs Morrissey added: "What it shows is that we actually do need to try and bring all schools up to the same level to provide decent quality education - but so far we haven't."

The school with no room

For every pupil admitted to Charters school in Sunningdale near Ascot, in Berkshire, at least one is turned away. Competition is so intense that their parents try every trick in the book to ensure their children a place at the popular, 1,600-pupil school.

"We've had people pretending to move into the catchment area - they say they will and then they don't," Marcia Twelvetree, the headteacher, said. "They rent little flats in the area, even places above a garage - or they move in with relatives in the area." She says she gets 500 applications for the 240 places on offer. "I should get a little bonus from the estate agents," she jokes.

"They've got the catchment area marked down on their walls. It's a very significant difference - between £40,000 and £50,000 depending which side of the road you're on."

Admissions staff at the local education authority have to resort to asking potential parents to bring in their utilities bills.

But she is adamant that proposals to allow popular schools to expand, advocated by Labour and the Conservatives, are not the solution. Her school would have to expand to more than 3,200 pupils to cope with the demand.

The child without a place

Ten-year-old Maya cried when she opened the letter telling her she didn't have a secondary school place for September. So did her mother, Patricia Winifred.

The family, who live in Brixton, south London, applied for six schools but were rejected by all of them. Seven weeks later, they have been forced to contemplate sending her to an independent school, despite the fees.

"We weredevastated," Ms Winifred said. "My daughter wanted to open the letter herself. But then her face just dropped. She has always done well at school. She started saying, why doesn't anybody want me?"

Maya now has a place at a £9,200-a-year private school. Her mother entered her for its exam to restore Maya's dented confidence. But what she really wants is for her to attend a local state school.

Ms Winifred hoped the new procedure to co-ordinateadmissions of all London boroughs would have made it easier to get a place. But the family live in Lambeth, which has a chronic shortage.

"It is just not good enough to say there aren't enough places," shesaid. "This is a terrible ordeal to put any child through."