Schools should stop giving automatic places to the children of teachers, the Government's chief admissions officer said this week.
"Do the children of doctors get preference going to a hospital?" asked Philip Hunter, the former civil servant and council education director charged with settling disputes over school admissions.
"There may be one or two cases where staff live locally and so it would be legitimate for their children to go to the same school, but this is often not the case," he said.
During the past year the Office for the Schools Adjudicator, which Dr Hunter heads, has dealt with 26 complaints of favouritism towards staff children. Most schools said they had given the places as a recruitment perk or to allow staff to work longer hours.
But Dr Hunter said this was no excuse for admitting teachers' children before others who lived closer to the school gates. "On the whole, adjudicators have found that it is not right to give privilege to children just because their parents happen to be on the staff," he said.
The adjudicators are having to intervene in more rows than ever, as parents face unprecedented competition to get children into the best schools. Its recent annual report reveals 270 cases referred to adjudicators during 20034,compared to just 78 two years ago.
It says 24 schools were reprimanded for favouring teachers' children. Eight Essex primary and secondary schools were among those ordered to change their admissions policies. Three in Luton were also criticised. But in Peterborough, the local adjudicator decided two schools, Arthur Mellows village college and the King's school, were right to give staff preferential treatment (see right).
Governors at King's, a comprehensive with 900 pupils, pointed to the fact that the school was close to authorities with different holiday dates. They said clashes would make life difficult for staff if their children went to school outside the borough. King's also said offering a place to the children of teachers and administrative staff ensured it attracted the best people.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolteachers Union of Women Teachers, said favouring children of staff could be justified if there were recruitment problems. But she said: "If schools are just promising teachers' children a place to give them a competitive edge over a neighbouring school, then I don't think it is right. My experience, though, has been that most teachers don't want their own children at the same school."
The report also criticises church schools for using unclear rules to select the most religious children. Dr Hunter said oversubscribed schools often applied criteria "so elaborate" that parents did not understand how to enrol their children - leading to accusations of bias when they failed to get in.