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Fettered choice

Many children are hunting for something more substantial than chocolate eggs this Easter. Thousands of 11-year-olds have not yet been offered a secondary school place for September and their parents are becoming more anxious with each passing week.

Some families always face this problem in April, of course, but there are several reasons why the admissions exercise is especially fraught this year. Rolls are rising nationally, and the competition for places in schools with the highest academic reputations has intensified, partly because of the publication of performance tables but also because parents, emboldened by the Government's talk of parental choice and the knowledge that they can cross local education authority boundaries, are less inclined to settle for the local comprehensive. As we report on page 10, the increasing tendency for middle-class and aspiring working-class families to "evacuate" their children from England's multi-ethnic inner cities is also intensifying the pressures on some suburban - and predominantly white and selective - secondary schools. But it is the existence of relatively large numbers of grant-maintained secondary schools that is making transfer at 11 particularly problematic in many LEAs.

Parents in areas such as Bromley and Sutton that have a complex mix of oversubscribed opted-out and LEA schools have found that they have had to hedge their bets by submitting up to five separate application forms - either direct to each GM schoool or, in the case of LEA schools, via the town hall. Moreover, some parents who gamble, wrongly, on getting their child into a GM school discover that their nearest LEA school is full by the time they apply for a place there. Inevitably, they then vent their anger on the local education office or share their distress with the heads of their children's primary schools (many weeping parents have had to be comforted over the past month). But in too many cases neither the LEA nor the primary school can do much to help because only the Funding Agency for Schools, whose existence most parents are unaware of, can remedy the shortfall in places.

Bromley has gone some way to making the admissions process more coherent by setting up a computerised system that identifies parents holding on to several offers. But the fact that the London borough still has 700 unplaced children - out of nearly 3,000 - suggests that the system could be improved still further. Clearly, GM schools and local authorities must harmonise their admissions schedule so that they are processing applications and issuing offers at the same time. In several authorities there is also a pressing need for a centralised system that enables parents to rank their preference rather than continue to pretend that every school they apply to is a first choice. But even if that is accomplished the fact remains that many English parents will still be unable to exercise the choice they were promised because the Department for Education, unlike the Welsh Office, has no intention of expanding popular schools. The English strategy, or lack of it, may be the correct one financially but it is hard to see how it squares with the Government's apparently devout belief in free enterprise. If it is determined to ride the "education is a market-place" hobby-horse it should not hold on to the reins.

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