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Appalled by some unnatural selection

Josephine Gardiner opens a two-page report on the Audit Commission's scrutiny of local councils' performance by asking what the deluge of raw data from relatively crude indicators can tell us about education.

"On the first day of term last September I had a mother knock on my door and ask if I could take her son because he had not been offered a place anywhere else," says Sylvia Moore, headteacher of Francis Combe School, one of only two local authority schools left in the south-west corner of Hertfordshire around Watford.

"Of course I took him in, thinking how appalling and sad it was that we had ended up with a system which could treat an 11-year-old like that."

Year 6 children in the Watford area have, in theory, a choice of 12 schools. But eight are now grant-maintained, two more are grant-maintained and Roman Catholic, and half select a proportion of their intake. All still call themselves comprehensives. The effects are felt throughout the system and are making the heads of primary schools and the two remaining LEA comprehensives angry.

Four of the grant-maintained schools, the boys' and girls' Watford grammar schools, Rickmansworth and Parmeter's, operate a joint entrance test in order to select up to 50 per cent of their intake on academic grounds.

Others use their right to select 10 per cent on the basis of musical or other ability. Others place importance on family connections with the school. Preference is given to siblings or to thechildren of former pupils. Critics argue that most of these criteria give an in-built advantage to white middle-class children in a town with a substantial ethnic-minority population.

Hertfordshire County Council was required to change admissions procedures for the Watford grammars by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1992, before the schools opted out, on the grounds that requiring written applications and interviews was discriminatory.

Primary heads in the area now complain mainly about the complicated and lengthy procedures for admission. "Parents have to understand the system and each school's admissions criteria. They also have to write letters of application for their children. This is very demanding and stressful for all parents," says Barbara Darley, head of Maple Cross primary school in Rickmansworth.

"Some children get two or three offers, others none, and those children may go right through until August before they know where they will transfer to. "

Last year it took four rounds of offers before most children in the area were allocated places. It is, Mrs Darley says, a bit like a UCAS university entrance system for 11-year-olds.

"It is a nightmare," says Dave Bent, head of Orchard primary in north Watford. "It is unpleasant for children who get no offers, and I've noticed that statemented children are particularly unlikely to get an offer from a GM school. The system is time-wasting, divisive and damaging for young children. "

The heads of the two LEA comprehensives are equally unhappy with a system which threatens to turn them into de facto secondary modern schools although they are committed to the comprehensive principle.

"We do very well with bright children when they come here," says Sylvia Moore. "We have had sixth-formers gaining three grade As and going on to Oxbridge. But this cut-throat competition for bright children means that our intake is no longer truly comprehensive."

She too is deeply unhappy with an allocation system which leaves her unsure how many pupils she will have until September and unable to organise the induction of her 11-year-olds in the way she would wish. "We know that a smooth transfer to secondary education is important for children's later performance. However we never know who is coming through the door, or how many of them there will be. Secondary heads meet at what are called shuffle-down meetings to try to sort out who is going where but often the appeals run right into the summer holidays."

She has to plan for Year 7, she says, on an "informed guess-timate". And her school is further disrupted as the year progresses by her "casual intake" of up to 60 older children, most of whom have been rejected in Years 10 and 11 by GM schools.

"Very often they do not suspend them but persuade them to leave voluntarily. The numbers leaving go up in February after returns have been filed and the money guaranteed for the rest of the year. I have to take them in because we are undersubscribed but I do not get a penny for them until September. With a lot of support, a high proportion of these children rejected by other schools succeed with us in spite of the trauma."

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