Education: The parents who are fighting for their choice: Ngaio Crequer reports on pupils who have been refused their first, second and even third preferred schools

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THERE are three schools within walking distance of Tish Renton-Rose's home, but her 11-year-old son, Darren, has been allocated a place at a school four miles away: a school the council wanted to close because it said it could not offer pupils the full range of opportunities.

Unlike thousands of other children settling down at the beginning of the new term, Darren remains at home in the south London borough of Sutton. His mother, a single parent, refuses to send him to a school which has poor results and has been blighted by the threat of closure. 'My boy is timid and has only got two or three friends, all going to local schools,' she says. 'He is so anxious he is wetting his bed.'

About 10 other dissatisfied parents, whose children are also staying at home, have joined Ms Renton-Rose in forming an action group, Sutton Parents against No Choice. They all live near three popular schools, but none has been given their first, second or third choice. Instead, they have been directed to Highview High School, on the other side of Sutton from their homes, near the boundary with Croydon. Last year, pupils at the school achieved fewer than half as many GCSE passes as children at other schools in the borough.

Some children, who were at first allocated to Highview, were suddenly offered places elsewhere after term began. And more pupils in the same position have been found places by their parents outside the borough, even though this involves several miles' travel.

The council wanted to close Highview. Its small size, lack of modern facilities and the 'atypical' ability range of its intake meant that it was 'unable to provide secondary education of a comparable breadth and quality' to that provided at other schools.

Ms Renton-Rose says she did not even put Highview down on her list of choices, as she had been told it was going to close. 'My son is dead against going to this school, and why should he have to when three schools are nearer? There are about 10 of us without places, living among these three schools. I am on income support and I have no car. Why can I not get my choice?'

Another parent, Georgina Howard, is also angry and distressed: 'My first-choice school is at the top of my road. It is six minutes door-to-door, 600 paces. But they want to send us four miles away, on the other side of the borough. I have three other children. They want us to get up at 7am, in the dark, and get the bus. Well, we are not going to.'

Sutton has particular difficulties, but there is the wider question of parental choice. The Government has invited the problem by raising expectations. Parents think they have a choice of which school their child goes to. In fact, they have a right only to express a preference.

The message can be deduced from a careful reading of the Parents' Charter, launched a year ago. It says: 'You have a duty to ensure that your child gets an education - and you can choose the school that you would like your child to go to. Your choice is wider as a result of recent changes.'

Stephen Ball, professor of education at King's College London, says that the exhortation to choose, and the growing emphasis on league tables and results, makes parental choice a responsibility that they must not duck.

The Department for Education does not keep figures on how many children get into their parents' first-preference school. But there is some evidence that parental choice has declined in recent years. Local authorities say that the principle of open enrolment established in the 1988 Education Reform Act instilled in parents the false belief that they had an absolute right to the school of their choice.

The Labour Party published a survey earlier this year which, though incomplete, presented a picture of parents disquieted because they could not obtain places in schools of their first choices. It said that in 17 local education authorities, a decreasing percentage of parents were gaining their first choices; only in six authorities were more parents succeeding. The number of parents winning appeals has gone down from 45 per cent to 43.5 per cent.

The problem is likely to grow more acute. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has warned local authorities in England that they must take urgent action to reduce a surplus of 1.5 million school places in England. He wants detailed proposals by the end of November. But any reduction in the number of places will make it harder, not easier, for the market to operate. Choice, after all, depends upon availability.

In Sutton, parents are also angry that, although they could appeal against the decision not to allocate them first-choice places, they were denied appeals on their second or subsequent preferences. Chris Blurton, Sutton's director of education, says the council had been advised by its lawyers: 'Our interpretation is that parents can appeal only against the decision not to allocate them to their first-choice school. But we know the parents are challenging us on this.' Mr Blurton says that it would be time-consuming and complex to put parents through multiple appeals, and could increase parents' anxieties.

Liz Allen, of the Advisory Centre for Education, argues that a council cannot stop anybody appealing. 'They can appeal for any school for which they have been turned down,' she says. She is receiving many inquiries from parents who want to know what their rights are.

Another complexity of the Sutton problem is that the council could not apply one part of its own admissions policy. Its booklet advising how to apply for a school place gives the usual criteria, such as medical or social reasons, or the fact that older siblings already attend the desired school.

Then it states: 'The remaining places are offered on the basis of proximity to your preferred school, provided that every Sutton child can be offered a place taking into account the alternative school that could be offered . . . these arrangements do not mean that places will necessarily be offered to those children living closest to the preferred school.'

But that advice was written before last year's 'Greenwich judgment', in which the courts ruled that out-of-borough children had the same rights of admission as those living in the borough. Sutton had to change its criteria, but did not have time to rewrite its booklet. Next year's version will simply state that remaining places will be offered on the basis of proximity to the preferred school, measured in a straight line from the home address.

Sutton says it is unable to put additional resources into Highview, as the site is too small to expand and does not justify more capital expenditure. Only 39 of the 55-60 new pupils allocated to the school have so far turned up. With some pupils going to out-of-borough schools instead, that leaves 10 or 15 anxious children at home, their parents determined not to give in.

'Over a period you always get movement,' says Mr Blurton. 'The situation changes every day. But it is worse this year because of little movement in the housing market.'

One parent, Kathy Feiner, who has just been given her second-choice school, says: 'There are not enough high-school places for all the children in junior schools. John Major keeps telling us we have the right to choose. Well, where is it?'


THE Advisory Centre for Education will be publishing a leaflet next month about how to choose a school. It offers the following hints:

DO find out all about the schools that are near you, read the literature and visit them yourself.

DO NOT rely on gossip or the local grapevine.

DO understand admissions law - you have the right only to state a preference, and that may not be met.

DO study each school's admissions criteria very carefully.

DO NOT assume that schools will all have the same admissions criteria, even in the same local authority.

DO ask questions of governors or the local authority about any criteria that are unclear. What, for example, do they mean by 'family connections with a school could count'? How do they measure distance from school: as the crow flies, or by available bus routes?

DO weigh up your chances of admission before you apply to a school. Ask questions about previous admissions figures, but do not assume that they will be exactly the same the following year. Go to appeal, if you need to; about one-third are successful.

DO NOT think that just staying on a waiting list will get your child in.

DO NOT waste your first choice on a school your child has no chance of getting into; places at your second choice will be filling up.

(Photograph omitted)