Chimera of choice frustrates parents

Josephine Gardiner

Selecting a secondary school can cause bitterness and frustration, according to a new survey. Josephine Gardiner reports.

Parents who are constantly told by politicians that they have a choice over which secondary school their child goes to have been given unrealistic expectations leading to frustration, confusion and disappointment, new research suggests.

A survey of 900 parents across 10 education authorities published last week by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that while the majority were broadly satisfied with their child's secondary school place, some felt very bitter when they realised that their right to "choice" actually meant "the right to express a preference".

For this minority, the experience of finding a school was "fraught and complex", and for some, "deeply unsettling".

The survey reveals wide variations between authorities, both in the number of appeals and in the amount and quality of information for parents about local schools and the admissions procedure. The information ranged from the patronisingly basic to jargon-ridden officialese, says the report, but with plenty of good practice in between.

The NFER survey also calls for an overhaul of the appeals procedure, which parents found stressful and intimidating. Though only 27 of the 900 parents surveyed actually took their grievance this far, those who did told some disturbing stories.

Sandra Jowett, who directed the research, said: "There is enough evidence throughout our study to suggest that people should be looking seriously at how appeals should be revised."

All but two of the 10 authorities surveyed said that there had been an increase in the number of appeals and predicted further increases given "widespread publicity on parental rights and options". Figures from the Department for Education and Employment, however, show a slight fall in appeals across all 112 education authorities between 1991 and 1993.

One parent described the three appeals she had been through as a "horrendous experience". The meetings she attended had a Kafkaesque atmosphere - they had taken place in the town hall with 12 people sitting round a table and a stenographer taking notes. She said she had felt "on trial". Others who were unhappy about their child's place had decided not to appeal because they saw little point in making a stand. The latter group included one case which illustrates parents' understandable frustration with catchment rules and authority boundaries - a parent who wanted a school four miles away in a neighbouring education authority but was offered a place six miles away in her own authority.

Another had expressed a preference for a grant-maintained school, but when turned down she became critical of GM schools that "drew up their catchment areas to include desirable areas of housing".

The report concludes that parents need fuller explanations of the rules and of decisions made about their child. The absence of such information, it suggests, creates a fertile atmosphere for rumours and accusations of favouritism to flourish.

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