Parents fight for the right to choose their children's schools

Richard Phillips on whether pupils should be made to attend the schools nearest their homes
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A GROUP of parents is considering taking legal action to retain the right to choose where their children can be educated.

The controversy is a typical one, as parents up and down the country see this freedom eroded by scarcity of resources, and the difficulties thrown up by league tables.

But what has upset parents in Knebworth, Hertfordshire, and makes their plight different from that of parents elsewhere, is a recent proposal by their local education authority, Hertfordshire County Council.

From September next year, pupils in the county must attend the nearest school. Most pupils living in a town will still have a choice of school. But for parents with children at Knebworth Junior school, with over 400 pupils, and the village's only primary school, that leaves only one choice: Heathcote School in Stevenage.

While few question the dedication of Heathcote's headmistress, there is a widespread perception of Heathcote as a sink school. Since it has always been undersubscribed, they say, there will be no choice at all for parents in Knebworth. It is either to go private, or send their sons and daughters to Heathcote. Before the current ruling, Hertfordshire had enjoyed what parents agree was perhaps an over-generous freedom of choice with the right to apply to 18 schools.

Alan Hughes, who is leading a campaign to overthrow the proposed LEA move, says, "The choice of one school is really no choice at all."

The problem is common to all LEAs: how to fill schools with a poor reputation, while popular schools are oversubscribed.

"Before this ruling, about 95 per cent and more of parents were satisfied. In Knebworth, nearly every parent will be disappointed," says Mr Hughes, a local vet with three children, and chairman of the governors at Knebworth primary.

Barbara Follett, the local Labour MP, supports the Knebworth parents. "I'm doing my best to get a fair deal for the parents and children of Knebworth," she said. The outcome is due to be decided at a council education committee meeting on 1 April.