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After the market, a legacy of chaos

Josephine Gardiner reports on an Audit Commission guide that aims to restore planning to the school system

Nearly 20 years of market-driven school reforms have left councils with a daunting legacy of problems, chief education officers said last week.

A new guide to planning school places drawn up by the Audit Commission points out that the Government's decision to end grant-maintained status could improve councils' ability to plan sensibly. Schools under threat of rationalisation will no longer be able to use opting out as an escape hatch.

But it warns councils that establishing good relationships with former GM schools will be vital. Labour's commitment to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven- year-olds will also call for careful planning.

In December the Audit Commission, the public-spending watchdog, embarrassed Conservative ministers by concluding that for a large proportion of parents, there was no such thing as a choice of schools for their children.

The commission's report, Trading Places, confirmed what many already suspected - that there was a huge mismatch between what parents had been led to expect and what was actually available, resulting in a "sizeable minority" of dissatisfied parents.

It also found large discrepancies between pupils and places, with one school in six less than three-quarters full and one in three bursting at the seams.

The commission concluded that the school planning system was in danger of becoming "gridlocked" as conflicting Government policies prevented any of them from being implemented.

At a conference to launch the commission's new handbook, chief education officers from all over Britain were invited to comment on their own experiences.

Christine Whatford from Hammersmith and Fulham described how the London borough had inherited a massive over-capacity at primary and secondary level after the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority. The problem was compounded by a large number of failing or weak schools.

The decision to lose one secondary by moving the pupils to the failing Hammersmith school was controversial, but justified by the fact that the failing school had better premises.

Hammersmith, reborn as the Phoenix school, became the prototype for the Government's Fresh Start policy. In total two schools were closed and four amalgamated. "The trick is in bringing the two issues of quality and planning together in the most realistic and sensible combinations."

In Portsmouth, a new unitary authority, chief education officer Anna Lawson explained how she was faced with the opposite problem - a shortfall of 200 secondary places. When two schools just outside the city boundary were declared to be failing 600 parents applied to transfer their offspring to Portsmouth schools.

She said that while some parents was becoming increasingly familiar with OFSTED reports and league tables, disadvantaged families were being overlooked and the children were inevitably ending up in the worst schools.

Ms Lawson also said that parents' views of which schools were good were as likely to be based on rumour and reputation as fact, and led to elastic definitions of home addresses.

If the local authority's role as "honest broker" is to have any meaning, she said, all parents must be enabled to compete in the market for places by being given accurate information about schools' performance and a realistic idea of where places would be available.

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