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Embarrassing admissions

Single-sex, religion and the draw of the south make choosing schools a continuous headache, says Diana Hinds.

When it comes to choosing a school for your child, Liverpool - in theory, at least - has as much educational variety as anywhere in the country. As well as state schools and a sprinkling of independent schools, nearly 50 per cent of the city's schools are voluntary-aided denominational schools - mostly Roman Catholic and Anglican. A few are Jewish.

Add to this a declining population and a large number of surplus places - 5,000 are projected for 2005 - and you would have thought there would be no problem gaining a place at the school of your choice. You would be wrong.

Parental choice, as in so many parts of the country, favours some Liverpool schools over others, particularly those in the slightly more affluent southern end of the city. A recent Ofsted report takes the LEA to task over these contrasts, pointing out that one school has a 27 per cent surplus of places, while another has more than 24 per cent over-capacity.

The admissions process is complicated because the voluntary-aided schools operate their own admissions policies. "We have had good co-operation from some schools, but others see themselves as slightly distanced," says Colin Hilton, Liverpool's executive director of lifelong learning. "We need to draw a little tighter together." The necessary closure of more schools is a bone of contention. No community ever wants a school to shut down - whatever the surpluses. Bob Newman, director of schools for the Catholic archdiocese, says the LEA has refused them permission to consult on closureproposals. "We have reached a bit of an impasse," he says.

The appeals system is another cause for concern. Ofsted criticised the appeals policy in Liverpool's state secondary schools as "unsatisfactory and ineffective", resulting in "a high level of successful appeals, mainly to schools which are already over-capacity".

Colin Hilton argues that legislative change is needed so that all school appeals can be better co-ordinated by a single body - and he believes the authority "is ideally placed to take a big hand in that".

"Greater clarity from the Government would be welcome - without cutting across parental choice - and that is what we are working towards," he says.

Meanwhile, the authority is hoping that its programme of school refurbishment and rebuilding in the inner city, combined with better housing, will encourage families to return and fill some of its surplus places.

Richard Woolford, senior education officer in Liverpool's strategic development department, says: "There is a considerable effort being made at regeneration and there is beginning to be a feeling of optimism. Wherever you go now in the city you see building work taking place, as opposed to demolition and neglect."

Schools needing to attract parents, he says, should be "confident about what they are doing and ways in which they are moving forward", and make sure parents get "better information".

Parental choice may be here to stay, but all too often, he points out, parental perceptions of "good" schools can be based, inaccurately, on how a school has performed in the past, rather than on its present strengths.

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