Almost a quarter of a million parents have taken their cases to local appeals panels since 1989, when the Government promised that everyone could choose the school they wanted. Then, the number of cases stood at just under 21,000 per year, but by 1994-1995 it had risen to more than 54,400.
Stephen Byers, Labour's spokesman for education, said the government had deliberately sought to raise the expectations of parents, and the hopes of thousands had been dashed.
"People actually think it is their right to choose a school, whereas in fact they have a right to express a preference. The only real solution to this question is to make every school a good school," he said.
Under the legislation, introduced in 1989, schools no longer have catchment areas. Children can cross borough boundaries to go to a school only if there is no one living nearer who wants the place.
The reform was designed to allow good schools to fill up and even to expand, but in fact many popular schools were already full. Many middle- class parents resorted to moving nearer to the schools, forcing house prices up, and as a result others can no longer get their children the places they want.
Even in areas where local authorities still try to maintain tight controls on the admissions system, parents are becoming more aware of their rights. These are spelled out in the Parents' Charter, and families must be informed of them if their school application is rejected.
Since 1989, 227,600 families have appealed against school placement decisions in both primary and secondary schools. Of the 160,000 cases which reached a full hearing, seven out of 10 were rejected.
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said she was surprised the number of appeals was not higher. "I would argue that we have never had parental choice," she said. "The upwardly mobile parents are succeeding while the silent majority are suffering.
"My personal opinion is that to give the majority of children a fair chance we either have to have a lot more schools, which is not possible, or we have got to get back to a system run by the local authority, where every child gets a place."
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said the surge in appeals had been caused by an increase in parental awareness rather than of dissatisfaction.
"The vast majority of parents get a place at the school for which they have expressed a preference. It is thanks to this Government that schools have to admit up to the level of their capacity. It is also thanks to this Government that parents have a
Melian Mansfield, a national executive committee member of the Campaign for State Education (Case) said more parents were approaching Case for help. In her own borough of Haringey, there were hardly any such cases five years ago, she said, but now there were large numbers every year. The situation was almost certainly the same all over the country.
"On the one hand the Government is saying it wants parental choice and on the other it is saying it wants to remove all surplus places. If you are talking about choice, you have to have more places available.
"They are raising parents' expectations and that has meant [parents] go further to get the place they want than they would have done ... At the end of the day schools have a limited number of places," she said.Reuse content