The national schools lottery

For many parents, the current system of allocating secondary school places is less about choice and more often about chance. Nicholas Pyke meets two mothers who have taken radical measures to get the schooling they want for their children
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The Independent Online

When Kira Grant, Daniel Newton, Megan Pollard and Kirk Garton get into class this morning they will open their bags and settle down to some more of the national curriculum. They have desks, teachers and textbooks. They even have a uniform - a distinctive red top - and their own school badge. What they don't have is a school. This, instead, is day 263 of their protest against Lancashire County Council's refusal to give them a place at the three successful comprehensives on their doorstep. For the best part of the year they have been attending classes taught by their parents in a community centre looking out over the moors at Burnley in Lancashire. Whatever else is on the timetable today, it has been a long, hard lesson in the politics of parental choice.

This is the time of year when families throughout the country discover in which secondary schools their children have been given a place. Thousands will be disappointed by the result. Ten per cent of pupils fail to get their first choice at age 11, condemning their families to the nerve-wracking process of a formal appeal. Some will be considering the private sector, if they can afford it. Others will be contemplating a more drastic step - keeping their children at home until a better place turns up. Sometimes it works, but mostly it does not and resistance quickly fades in the face of local authority officialdom.

Few are as determined as Lisa Newton and Viki Brown, the women who started, and now sustain, the classes at what they call the Do It Yourself School in Burnley. The longevity of their protest may already be a record. Back in September, the four pupils in year seven wanted a place at one of the co-educational schools around the corner from where they live. Instead of that, with the perversity for which the school admissions system is now infamous, they were told to go to less favoured, single-sex schools, several miles away on the other side of town. This is the part of Burnley which saw most of the rioting two years ago, and where the secondary system has around 1,000 surplus places. They refused.

The government inspectors say that one of these schools, Walshaw High School for Girls, is doing its best in difficult circumstances. But Viki Brown objects on the grounds that it is all-female and a long way from where she lives with her daughter Kira. "I'm opposed to my daughter being forced to go to a single-sex school," she explains. "If she'd accepted the place across town, she'd have been the only pupil taking a bus four and a half miles, knowing nobody. I'm not prepared for her to do that."

Barden High School for Boys, meanwhile, is struggling by almost any measure. It has serious behaviour and attendance problems, according to the inspectors, and very poor results. Only around 20 per cent of the pupils get five GCSEs at A* to C, against a national average of 50 per cent. Ofsted says Barden is improving but Lisa and other parents say they witnessed an intolerable level of misbehaviour when they visited last summer.

Lancashire County Council's response has been to suggest their children travel even further afield, albeit with free transport, to schools in Brierfield, Nelson and even Accrington, an offer they declined.

"All their friends in this area are going to these good schools near us," says Lisa Newton. "And, of course, now their friends have made other friends and when it comes to doing things outside school our children get a bit pushed to one side. They've been born and brought up here and they can't understand why they can't move on to a secondary school with their friends."

Her son Daniel, an intelligent, talkative boy, particularly misses the after-school activities. "All my friends are at the other three schools," he says. "They seem to try not to talk about proper schools because I'm not in one and they know it upsets me. It makes you feel really left out."

Their predicament sums up a national admissions system that for too many parents is less a matter of choice, and more a question of chance. In Burnley this is quite literally the case. The most popular school in its divided education system is Habergham, with some of the best A-level results in Lancashire. It is so oversubscribed, it hands out places by lottery. Ivy Bank and Gawthorpe, practically on the same campus, are both overflowing. Viki Brown and Lisa Newton made the simple mistake of putting the wrong school first - because they did not know how the system operates, and nobody in authority thought to tell them. And as a result they have, in their view, ended up with nothing. They were particularly exasperated to see children from the other side of town get places at these schools when their children, who live much closer, were refused.

They have gone to extraordinary efforts at the DIY school. There are playtimes, holidays and homework. Uniforms and teaching materials have been donated by shopkeepers in town, where the school has become a minor cause célèbre. The mums acknowledge that some subjects, such as science, are difficult to deal with in a single, rather gloomy classroom, where the desks and whiteboard sit oddly with the pool table. But English, maths, art, geography, history and music are thoroughly taught. They have even had lessons in French and Spanish. When Lancashire education authority sent its inspectors to take a look a few months ago, they pronounced themselves satisfied.

This success, however, comes at a great personal cost to the parents and pupils. While the local papers have been supportive, they feel politicians are indifferent and education bureaucrats positively hostile. "We've been threatened with court action and even jail," says Ms Newton. "I wish I hadn't started sometimes. Emotionally it's been hard. Especially as they've been picked off, one by one." Last September there were 11 children in the community classroom. By Christmas, seven of them had successfully found a place at one of the three schools. This time last year, Viki was training to be a hypno-analyst and Lisa worked as a child carer in Burnley's women's refuge. That has all gone by the board, for the moment at least. At 4pm, when she has finished her share of the teaching, Lisa has to go home and put on her uniform for an evening shift at the Spa shop. They spend much of their spare time mugging up on the curriculum to stay a step ahead of the children. It is not lost on them that they are both council tenants who want their children to be in schools popular with the middle classes. They feel that with better connections and a bit more know-how they would have avoided this predicament. "It's just strange that none of the children who come from private estates or nicer areas appear to have been left out," says Ms Newton. "It does make you think."

Peter Pike, the local Labour MP, refuses to support the children's case, claiming he cannot make an exception for them. But he is happy to accept that fellow party members on Lancashire County Council should have sorted out the mess in Burnley many years ago. Lancashire is now promising to come up with a solution, and the town recently had a visit from Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, who came to take a look for himself. Much of the present difficulty, says Pike, stems from the Sixties when, instead of choosing comprehensive education, Burnley's Labour councillors invested in selective schools on the western side of town - the popular schools today.

National government too has decided to act. From the autumn of 2004, a more streamlined system of allocating places will begin under the new admissions code of practice. Parents will be able to fill in one form. They will be restricted to choosing just three schools and it will become harder to hold onto several offers of places at once - a practice which delays the whole system.

It is all a bit late for the Do It Yourself families. With the new academic year approaching, Viki Brown and Lisa Newton have exercised their right to appeal to the schools of their choice once again, in the hope that their children will win places alongside their dwindling band of friends in year eight. "We're determined to keep on fighting for as long as it takes to get a school we're satisfied with, one that offers a decent education," says Lisa Newton. If they are refused again, they might leave Burnley altogether.