But we want this school

'Mark was so upset he started having nightmares'
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The Independent Online
"I would not wish it on my worst enemy," says Suzanne Turton of her year spent fighting for a place at a local school for her eldest child.

Mrs Turton and her husband, David, found themselves presenting their case to an appeals tribunal, local MPs, social workers, three doctors, and even the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, after their son Mark was turned down for a place at two oversubscribed middle schools near their south London home.

Their battle began early last year, when their local authority, the Labour- controlled borough of Merton, told them their preferred schools - chosen for proximity and quality - were both full.

Mark, now nine, was offered a place at four others, but all were either a half-hour walk or two bus rides away - too far for a child his age to travel alone. Taking Mark to a school almost on the borough border, the Turtons argued, would have made them late in dropping off their two daughters, Emma and Megan, at their first school.

After losing an appeal against the authority's ruling, the family decided to fight on. "Mark was so upset that he was being parted from all his friends, who were going to one of the two local middle schools," Mrs Turton says. "He is quite a sensitive child and he became very nervous and started to have nightmares."

On the advice of their local MP, the couple wrote to Mrs Shephard, who expressed sympathy but said they had exhausted all available options. They pressed the council for a change of heart, but were told Mark was still only eighth on the waiting list of their preferred school, Hillcross, with little hope of moving up. The Turtons live just 10 minutes from the school, but new families moving to homes even nearer took priority for places.

When term started in September, Mark stayed studying at home, prompting visits from social workers threatening court action if he did not attend school.

Finally, after contacting the Advisory Centre for Education, a parents' advice group, the Turtons learnt that they had a legal right to appeal to the authority again. With notes from three GPs confirming the stress Mark had suffered, they were able to win their case for a place at Hillcross, their first choice school, on medical grounds.

Despite their victory, both parents are bitter that the option they believed was due to them never materialised. "We were given a choice of schools, but it was no choice because none of them were what we wanted," Mrs Turton says. "If parental choice were a reality, it should not matter that a school is full."

The borough of Merton, where no schools have opted out or introduced selection, might have been expected to have less difficulty planning places than many other authorities. However, the council admits that its schools reflect the pattern of oversubscription identified in the Audit Commission's report, and points to 49 disappointed parents whose children were turned away from Hillcross.