Education: Which school can literally be a lottery: Few parents succeed when it comes to appealing against the refusal of place for their child. David Alexander and Wendy Berliner report

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The Independent Online
This year hundreds of parents will once again appeal for their child to be admitted to the school of their choice. After all, is that not what the Government promised? Not quite. The rubric has changed from 'parental choice' to 'parental preference'.

The law, the introduction of grant-maintained schools and the unreasonable parental expectations encouraged by the Government has made the always difficult choice of secondary school even more fraught. To make matters worse, few parents will be successful when it comes to appealing against the refusal of a place.

Jack Rabinowicz, a London lawyer specialising in education law, says that appeal numbers are growing exponentially every year on the false premise that parents can actually choose their child's school.

But if you choose a popular, oversubscribed school outside your catchment area you will not get your choice. In some cases of small and popular schools you are not necessarily going to get in even when you live in the catchment area.

'The idea of parental preference has been a victim of its own success,' says Mr Rabinowicz. 'Appealing on admissions is virtually hopeless. I have a case of a girl in Essex who wants to go to the school her sister attends. She lives outside the catchment area and the school is already full with siblings from within the catchment area. She can't get a place, even though her mother has said it is physically impossible to take the two girls to schools in different directions.'

The Advisory Centre for Education (Ace) - a parental advice charity - is being swamped with calls about appeals. The numbers are predicted to grow by another 700 to 1,000 cases in the year from September when parents of children with special needs get the right to express a preference for a school.

Staff there query whether any equitable admissions policy is possible. Satisfying the choices of angry parents in one part of a local education authority area could limit the choices of others.

An Ace worker says: 'If popular schools were to expand there would come a point when the undersubscribed ones might become unviable and close. What choice would that leave the parents and pupils of those schools with?

'The law on admissions is a spider's web in which many parents feel trapped. The idea that recent legislation has created greater choice is more of a dead letter than a parents' charter.'

Many parents believe that secondary school selection is a lottery. That, literally, is the way it has been done for the last 13 years for Habergham High School, Burnley. The Lancashire County Council scheme divides the town into four areas so that children from each one have an equal chance to enter the popular former grammar school. A similar scheme is operated for two other Lancashire schools, in Ormskirk. However John Patten, the education secretary, says he disapproves of random selection.

Children with brothers and sisters at the 1,114-pupil Hebergham school are guaranteed places, and two or three are admitted on medical or social grounds. The application forms for the remaining 100 or so of the 173 places are shuffled and numbered by one council official while another reads out the numbers from random selection tables drawn up by computer.

Some selection is already available to schools, which can ask for permission to hold back a percentage of places for specially designated groups of pupils, such as the musically gifted, or talented athletes.

Local authority schools have to satisfy their councils that admission policies are fair and acceptable; changes have to be approved according to Department for Education (DFE) guidelines. Grant-maintained schools, subject to DFE approval, can set their own criteria - reserving places for special skills and even holding places for the children of staff.

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: 'The problems are going to be with parents for a very long time. The situation is made worse by open enrolment and league tables which mean there is a tendency for parents all to opt for the same school. Parents are continually being told that they are allowed to have a preference and they want to exercise that right. The appeals system is very patchy and very often local authority appeals committees are made up of local politicians who for their own reasons allow appeals, so schools sometimes find they have to let pupils in on appeal when there is really not enough room for them. Governors of grant-maintained schools are generally more assiduous in guarding the gate.'

League tables only exacerbate the problem. For example, Fortismere School in London's Muswell Hill has had nearly twice as many applications as it has places this year - 407 applications for 216 places. Fortismere has become more popular since the publication of exam results and now attracts parents from Barnet as well.

Even living over the road from the schoool of their choice has so far failed for Louise Foster and her 11-year-old son, James, from Blackpool. The family is Roman Catholic and James attends a Roman Catholic primary school. As a result, Lancashire County Council directed him to St Mary's RC High School, four miles from their home, even though they live opposite the popular non-Catholic Highfield High School, a location which for any other family would have guaranteed a place.

Last month the High Court in London upheld the county council decision to send James to St Mary's, despite the fact that Mr Patten had accepted Mrs Foster's argument that other Roman Catholic children had been allowed to attend non-Catholic schools where there was room. Mrs Foster has lodged an appeal.

POSSIBLE REASONS FOR AN APPEAL AGAINST REFUSAL

REASONS for an appeal might include:

brother or sister already at the school;

strong family associations;

medical, social or psychological reasons. These should be accompanied by a report from a doctor or social worker and should have been included in the original application. A particularly difficult journey may also have medical implications for some children;

a strong preference for single sex or co-education;

a specific curriculum offer only available at the preferred school;

Welsh-language teaching;

religious reasons.

For selective schools you will have to have clear evidence of an ability test and the previous headteacher's report to back up your appeal. It could be that in your view the test was not administered properly, that your child was ill at the time, or that your child had been offered a selective place in the area from which you have just moved.

Further information: 'School Choice and Appeals', Advisory Centre for Education, 18 Victoria Park Square, London E2 9PB ( pounds 4.40).

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