The Government's proposed new arrangements for school admissions are an accident waiting to happen, heads' associations have warned.
From September 2004 every local education authority in England will have to operate a co-ordinated admissions scheme covering all their state schools, other than special schools. The aim is to make sure that all parents get an offer of one place - and only one - on the same day. Primary places will have to be offered on April 15 each year. For secondaries "offer day" will be March 15.
Critics say the proposals will mean able pupils will be lost to private schools. This is because the "offer day" falls after the date parents must accept independent school places. Parents who wait till March15 risk missing both their favoured state and private places.
"Many of our members tell us that offers from state schools have to be seen alongside offers from the private sector," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association for Head Teachers.
Mr Hart pointed out the private sector makes offers before February half-term, which have to be accepted by the start of March.
The new arrangements, outlined in a draft code of conduct that recently went through a consultation lasting less than four weeks, take account of changes introduced by the Education Act 2002.
For secondary transfer, each LEA has to provide a single application form which parents will use to apply for schools inside and, crucially, outside that authority.
The LEA will need to inform other authorities of any applications made for their schools, and pass on relevant supporting information. Similarly, foundation and voluntary aided schools, which control their own admissions, must share information with their LEA.
LEAs will not need to co-ordinate primary admissions to the same extent. They will only have to make sure children get no more than one offer from their LEA.
As Ian Birnbaum, chief education officer for the London Borough of Sutton, points out, the arrangements will require unprecedented co-ordination between LEAs. Huge amounts of information will need to flow between them, especially in London where many children apply to secondaries outside their boroughs.
Mr Birnbaum says: "The only date that is fixed is March 15... apart from that all the rest has to be negotiated between LEAs. Our fear is that it could go badly wrong because it all depends on the slowest member, who can hold the whole thing up."
But he and others also believe life could get easier for schools.
"Schools will have less hassle in terms of moving people up waiting lists and juggling while people play with multiple offers," said a spokesman for the Local Government Association.
But the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association (FASNA) fears that its members could lose their autonomy as admissions authorities as LEAs allocate children. "In particular there seems to be a lack of clarity as to who is actually going to be taking the decisions," said George Phipson, FASNA general secretary.
The association says the arrangements are unworkable and will present local and national government with an even bigger test of nerve than the A-level debacle.
But the DfES disagrees: "The aim of co-ordinated admissions is to make the applications process easier for parents," a spokesman said. "It doesn't have any effect on the autonomy of individual admission authorities who may still set and apply their own admissions criteria."
ADMISSIONS: KEY CHANGES
The new arrangements for secondary schools
* LEAs must provide all parents in their area with a common application form.
* The form must invite parents to express at least three, ranked preferences, giving reasons for the choices.
* LEAs and governing bodies must consider each preference.
* Parents' home LEA should inform other admission authorities, including neighbouring LEAs where appropriate, of anyapplication made on the common application form for their schools.
* Schools which areadmissions authorities must notify the LEA of applications made to them directly, and treat those applications exactly as they would those received via the LEA.