Caution: Desperate parents ahead

It's the season for school interviews and assessments - and nothing tests a family's nerves more than getting a child into the best place possible.
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The Independent Online

As one of only two mixed grammar schools in the capital, Latymer School in Enfield, north London, received 1,810 applications this year for its 180 places. Head teacher Michael Cooper's job is to try and instil a sense of realism among the crowds of parents who flock to the school's open evenings, keen to find a highly academic but state-funded and co-educational school.

"First I try to counsel them as to whether they should put their children through the selection process: 1,300 of the children who apply are not even going to get through the first round, so I tell parents to be prepared for failure as well as success," he says.

But whatever type of education you are looking for, the admissions process can be a nightmare, and it's one that many parents are enduring at the moment, for this is the season of school entrance tests, assessments and selection.

Just how traumatic it is for parents is revealed by the number of appeals against admissions decisions. These have have risen dramatically – the number of secondary school appeals increased by 12 per cent between 1999 and 2000 – and the Government's research shows that 15 per cent of parents do not secure a place at the school they most want their child to go to. In London the figure is 30 per cent.

For most parents, applications to state schools begins with filling in the local education authority's application form, or more than one if you are applying to schools in different authorities. Local authorities are obliged to find a state school place for any children living in their area, but they also have a duty to consider the wishes of parents who have named a specific school or group of schools ahead of those who have not expressed a preference. Some authorities ask parents to rank the schools they are applying to in order of preferences, others do not.

Education barrister Jane McCafferty, who often represents parents in appeals, explains: "There's no doubt that good, oversubscribed schools do have an advantage in the admissions system. Some say to parents, 'we will only take your child if we are your first choice'.

"Parents may find that their second-choice school won't consider them because they didn't put it first. They may end up not getting into any of their preferred schools and then they are in difficulty."

The situation is further complicated because some schools, particularly church schools and former grant-maintained schools (now known as foundation schools) control their own admissions, largely free of local government supervision.

For those applying to church schools there is often an extra hurdle: the interview. Church schools are the only state schools that are allowed to interview parents, in order to determine their religious commitment, and the accusation has been made that schools can use the interview to check they are the "right sort" of parents.

Regular churchgoers often observe that attendance at churches close to popular schools tends to rise significantly in the weeks before the admissions deadline, but some parents go much further in an effort to beat the system.

Those who can will move to the catchment area of a popular school. Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, believes that having a good school nearby can add 10 to 15 per cent to property prices.

Others simply lie. Even if the fraud is discovered, their child cannot be thrown out once he or she starts at the school. Many schools now ask applicants for evidence of their home address, such as a council tax bills.

Latymer, as one of the country's 164 remaining grammar schools, is allowed to select pupils on the basis of ability. But before coming to power, Labour promised "no new selection". Critics claim that recent innovations, such as the expansion of the "specialist" secondary schools programme, mean children are now more rather than less likely to face a test when applying for a secondary school place. The Government has plans for 1,500 specialist secondary schools by 2005 and each is allowed to select up to 10 per cent of pupils on the basis of "aptitude", though few schools have yet exercised this right.

Margaret Tulloch of the Campaign for State Education (Case) says: "I don't think there's any evidence you can test for aptitude without also testing for ability. This creates the potential for much more widespread selection."

Parents who apply to selective independent schools will face a merry-go-round of tests and interviews in the New Year. It is rare for private schools to co-ordinate their admissions arrangements, beyond setting similar dates for applications and tests. A spokesman for the Independent Schools Council said: "Schools feel this is part of their independence. Parents can apply to as many schools as they think is appropriate. Some will put their children in for five or more schools, which means they will be spending every Saturday in January sitting tests.

"Our advice is to make sure that the school is right for your child before you put them in for what may be a quite arduous admissions process."