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Case study: inner-city primary

The secondary transfer process is a mess. It was never easy. Years ago, my daughters were initially turned down for the schools of our choice. One was lucky because a vacancy came up early in the new term, and the other got a place because we successfully claimed maladministration. Having been through the mill, I understand the desperation my unsuccessful Year 6 parents and children feel.

I felt in control of the situation until a few years ago. Early in September I'd send booklets and a detailed letter to my Year 6 parents, giving lots of advice about choosing a school. I'd tell them to contact me if they needed to talk things through, or if they didn't understand the transfer process. I'd set aside a week in October and interview each parent. By the end, I'd know the plans for all my 11-year-olds. I'd also know the documentation had been completed correctly, because it was my responsibility to pass it to the LEA. The following March, all the children would be notified on the same date, whichever school they'd applied for, and the unsuccessful would be given more of my time until everybody was settled satisfactorily.

Not any more. Parents are now in charge. They still receive a booklet, a letter from me, and as much advice as they need, but they're not obliged to see me and they often have no idea about the minefield they're entering.

The "good" schools are well known to them and, unfortunately, to every other parent in the LEA, and 1,000 children chase 300 places in the schools with the best reputations.

The range of schools is bewildering, and each year the Government seems to change the labels and categories. If parents catch a school at the right time - city technology colleges, for example, had huge initial injections of cash - their children bask in the benefits. Pros and cons must be weighed: risk a new kind of school or a huge but successful comprehensive, or opt for that smaller school, which is a bit crusty but solid on discipline and attainment? Whatever the choice, there's no guarantee of a place.

Parents can list as many schools as they like, which gives rise to an extraordinary situation. Popular schools demand to be first choice, or the child won't be considered. Most parents would happily accept a place at any, but you can't place them all as first choice, so the others will issue refusals immediately. And, because they confer, schools know who's choosing what. Then again, an able and talented child applying outside the borough might be offered places at five schools, and not make a decision until late summer, thus releasing four places back into the system.

Waiting lists have changed, too. At one time, you knew if you were number six on the list you'd have a reasonable chance of getting in by September.

Nowadays, you're not told where you are on the list (to avoid "disappointment"), or the listing procedure is so complex nobody understands it. You can't even guarantee getting in if your brother or sister already attends. There's always the appeal, but it's complicated.

Rejections often point out that any appeal is likely to be unsuccessful.

Little wonder parents consider moving just to be in the right catchment area.

Occasionally, when I feel a child is ideally suited to a particular school and has been rejected, I'll write personally to the head. I wrote for Andrew, and his beam of pleasure when he knew he'd got a place will stay with me a long time. But there's a downside. As I stood at the top of the staircase at home time yesterday, I saw Andrea run to welcome her mum at the gate. Mum took a letter from her pocket, and showed it to Andrea, who burst into tears. Mum hugged and comforted her. She's a bright child, and this is her third rejection. It was like watching a silent movie. I couldn't hear them but I knew every word being said.

Mike Kent Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove school, in the London borough of Southwark, and a Friday magazine columnist

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