I have just been through the secondary schools admission procedure and it was horrendous. So bad that I have made a monumental decision. My partner, Chris, and I have decided to send our son, John, to private school. That's right, we've resolved to hand over the cost of a John Prescott flat-pack starter home (£3,000 a term) to fund John's education. It wasn't an easy decision, not least because I am a freelance journalist and my partner a trainee physiotherapist. But as sobering as it is to know there will be many who call us sell-outs, it's more sobering to know that this felt like our only choice.
In September, in common with all the other parents of Year 6 children, we received a secondary school application form from our local education authority, Waltham Forest. The accompanying booklet explained we could apply to up to six schools anywhere in the country and that we just needed to list our chosen schools in order of preference. Completed forms had to be returned to the local education authority (LEA), a departure from previous years. Previously, parents applied to schools, filling out individual forms and attending interviews before getting an offer directly from a school. Now, the LEA would make the application on the parents' behalf, in theory making the system blind. Everyone gives the same information to the schools, the schools then give offers based on who best meets their criteria. To stop students receiving places at several schools, offers are made to the LEA which sifts through each student's offers and passes on the one that ranks highest in their order of preference.
Back in September, we felt spoilt. Such choice - it seemed too good to be true. And it was. By the deadline for submitting application forms - October - we realised that in reality, our choice of six was really only two. One, Holy Family, was a dead-cert option. John attends one of its feeder schools. The other, St Ignatius, is a good Catholic school based in Enfield. While there was less guarantee of securing a place at the latter - we are not in the catchment area - the success rate of children getting into St Ignatius from John's school was encouraging. Further, we calculated our case might be helped by the fact that I am a governor at John's school. Both these options were fair choices, but they were not our favourites. We ruled out applying to the grammar school, Ilford County High, for example, because competiton for places is so intense entry from outside the area is the exception, not the rule. Similarly we were keen on Trinity because it is the jewel in the crown of north-east London Catholic schools. The problem is that it has catchment area issues too, and an endless waiting list.
Catchment issues aside, the declaration by many Catholic school that they would only consider applications from families who put them as their first choice further restricted our options. If we were to put Trinity (which did not insit on this) as our first choice and Holy Family (which did) as our second, there was a strong chance we would not get Trinity on catchment criteria or Holy Family on chioice order.
In the end we put St Ignatius as our first choice. For us, it had the edge on Holy Family in the range of subjects it offered. We had serious reservations, though. It was a boys' school and we wanted a mixed school. It is an hour's journey away by train, bus and tube in an area we don't know. We would have had to consider moving closer to the school. But we gambled that he had a chance of getting in - and so it proved. In March he was offered a place.
We had made a choice but it felt hollow - we were not choosing the school that best suited our son, but the school he had the best chance of getting into. Disaffected, we resolved to give ourselves a real choice. By the time I posted our application in October, we had decided John would sit the entrance exam for Forest, a mixed private school in east London that is a bus ride away. Making this choice was not without its anxieties. John had not been tutored and no one from his school had ever attended Forest. Moreover, paying school fees would mean sacrifices, not least the glorious wedding I'd been anticipating for the past 12 years. Then there was the blow to John's self esteem that sitting but not passing the exam could inflict. But applying felt like the only way to make a real choice. We were lucky. He got in.
It is extraordinary to me that Labour campaigned on the choice bandwagon in the election campaign but did not have to answer awkward questions from people like me. Yet, according to a survey carried out by The Independent, published last week, large numbers of parents, 70,000 in fact, failed to get their offspring into the school of their choice.
School admissions criteria - catchment area, faith or sibling attendance - act more as barriers to getting into good schools than guidelines to make the application process more transparent. The idea that there has been a great revolution in parental choice is a fallacy. Our system effectively reduces choice to figuring out which school is most likely to offer you a place rather than assessing which school best suits your child's needs.
It is something that Katherine O'Sullivan and Larry Adaji know only too well. Their son, Lawrence, is extremely bright, so they figured he could handle the entrance exam for Latymer, the highly-rated grammar school in Enfield, north London. They did not worry that Lawrence, unlike many of the 1,800 hopefuls who sat the exam for 180 places, had not been crammed for the two-part test.
"The school has a respected name and at the open day Lawrence was impressed," says his mother. "He appreciated it would be a place where he could flourish." Lawrence passed part one on the test, which meant he could sit part two. Meanwhile, his parents had a choice. They were applying to local Catholic school, Holy Family, which insisted on being your first choice.
"If we didn't put Holy Family as our first choice it would have been virtually impossible to have got a place there," says Katherine. "I know Lawrence is bright but I couldn't know how he would do on the Latymer test. If he didn't pass and he didn't get into Holy Family, where would he be? Really there was no choice. Besides, Holy Family is a good school, it's Catholic and most of his friends from primary school will be going there."
Not putting Latymer as their first choice means Lawrence has a place at Holy Family. It also means the Adajis won't be told if he passed Latymer's test.
"Latymer do not insist on being first choice, but if they offered Lawrence a place as well as Holy Family, the LEA would only tell me about Holy Family," says Katherine. "I've asked Latymer for Lawrence's results but they do not give them out. When I called, I was asked if I got the school of my choice, in other words my preferred choice. What could I say but yes? So in Latymer's eyes, that was the end of it. We've explained to Lawrence why we filled the form out as we did. But it would be good to know how he did so he can draw a line under it."
Should the Adajis have taken the risk? A family at John's school did just that, putting Latymer as their first choice and the local Catholic school second. But the child failed to get into Latymer and the Catholic school did not consider their application. They now have an offer at a school languishing at the bottom of the league table - and they are appealing.
For some parents, winning in the selection process means making do, taking the less irksome option and learning to live with it. Many parents are, however, prepared to make a final stand. Gina and Stuart Peters are appealing the decision to refuse their son, Adam, a place at his first and second choice schools.
The couple live in a borough with few good schools so their first choice was a school in a neighbouring borough. Competition for places is fierce but Adam's older sister, Charlotte, took her A-levels there and siblings are a bonus on the admissions criteria. Choice two was in their home borough - a good school, 20 minutes away, with a tiny catchment area. Choices three and four were in neighbouring boroughs. In March, Adam was offered a place at his third-choice school - and the family is appealing.
"I feel let down," says Gina. "To only get our third choice. People may think it's churlish but choosing four schools in north London that were good and not miles away was hard. Our first and second choices were all we wanted. We included a third and fourth as the application form emphasised that you had to use all choices. We ended up including an all-boys school as our third choice even though Adam hates single-sex schools. Now going to one is a possibility."
The Government's five-year plan was lauded for raising standards for all rather than a few. But selection remains at the heart of the system - even if it is by stealth. It is not linked to ability but to income. As the Secondary Heads Association president Tim Andrews has said, the Government's rhetoric represents moving away "from selection by ability - in so far as IQ represents ability - to selection by house price".
Deciding to send John to a private school hasn't been easy and the next seven years scare me. Although I am prepared to make compromises in life, I am not prepared to compromise on his education.
* Some names have been changed
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