Performance tables have added a disturbing dimension to parents' quest for a secondary. Susannah Kirkman reports
The publication of the latest exam results league tables and of national curriculum test results is about to intensify the scramble for places at "good" schools. Figures show that competition has never been so keen - appeals against refused school places have risen from 10,500 to 54,500 over the past seven years.
It is understandable that parents will go to any lengths to ensure a place at the school of their choice. Those who can afford to may spend thousands on moving house or bussing their children many miles each day, but schools are reporting that lying and cheating are also on the increase.
What's more, it may surprise John Major to learn that many parents are using some of these tactics to secure a place at a comprehensive school, rather than a grammar school. In Ripon, a North Yorkshire market town with a bipartite system, around 40 per cent of the secondary pupils are leaving the town every day to attend comprehensive schools in other areas up to 11 miles away.
"Neither the grammar nor the secondary modern caters for the average child, " says Debbie Atkins, who withdrew her children from the selection process so that they could attend comprehensive schools. Mrs Atkins' 14-year-old daughter Gemma attends a church comprehensive in Harrogate although they live in Ripon.
"The grammar school is very academic and the children get a feeling of failure if they're not in band A. The comprehensive makes all children feel valued - they're not labelled." As Gemma is sporty, Debbie has to make the 22-mile round trip at least three times a week to collect her daughter after team practices or matches.
Mal Derricott moved one mile, out of the grammar school catchment area in Poole, Dorset, and into the area of Lytchett Minster school, an 11-to-18 comprehensive. "We found the selective system in Poole very divisive and backward-looking," she said. "Our youngest daughter would have stood a good chance of passing the 12-plus, but all three children have done well at Lytchett, despite their different characters and abilities."
Houses in the Lytchett Minster catchment area command around Pounds 8, 000 more than an identical house just outside the boundary. "We have a lot of parents saying they have bought houses here to get into the school," said Ron Castleton, the headteacher. "The grammar school lobby forgets that the majority of children don't get into grammar school. Taking the grammar school entrance exam is a very big gamble if the alternative is a 'sink' secondary modern school."
Lytchett Minster's appeal is a combination of good exam results - 53 per cent of pupils achieved five A to Cs at GCSE this year - and its magnificent setting, a former manor house in acres of parkland. The school has 150 pupils over capacity. Some parents do try to buck the system, according to Mr Castleton. Some acquire a temporary address in the catchment area, an aunt's or granny's, or they might go to the lengths of renting somewhere.
Another ruse used by some couples who have separated is to give the address of the parent living within the catchment area, even if the children are living with the other parent. "You may suspect their natural home is outside the catchment area, but you don't want to cause offence by probing too carefully, " said Andrew Williams, head of the popular Corfe Hills School, which has the best GCSE results of any Dorset comprehensive school.
The mark-up for houses in the Corfe Hills area is between 10 to 15 per cent, according to a local estate agent, and among the most eager buyers are parents moving out of the grammar school catchments in Bournemouth and neighbouring Poole.
Mr Williams has recently caused consternation among local parents by proposing that, when the school becomes grant-maintained, any child who sits the entrance exam for a grammar school should take second place to those whose first preference is Corfe Hills.
"There is a great tradition in the British middle classes of having your cake and eating it," Mr Williams said. "In a selective area, some parents want to use comprehensive schools as an improved secondary modern choice, but it subverts the whole nature of comprehensive education.We need the full spectrum of ability. If you're going to start with a cohort which believes it's second-rate, you're going to have an uphill task."
Mr Williams hopes to rely on parents' honesty to enforce the new rule, but he also believes that parents who stand to lose a place through another family's dishonesty will be prepared to inform on the cheats.
With admissions criteria changing all the time at popular schools, even moving house is sometimes no guarantee of a place. Having increased her mortgage to buy a smaller house in the catchment area of a school in a north London suburb where 75 per cent of pupils get five A-C grades at GCSE, Elizabeth Morris (not her real name) was horrified to discover that the goalposts had moved.
The comprehensive is now planning to restrict admission to pupils from its feeder primary schools, where Elizabeth's younger child stands little chance of a place.
"I almost had to laugh," Elizabeth said. "You have got to be an Olympic parent to get into this and I don't classify myself as one of those." She still feels guilt at leaving the inner city. "For every concerned, involved parent that leaves, it's worse for those that stay."
Another problem for parents can be that they don't understand what the real admissions criteria are.
"Sometimes parents can actually see the primary school from their window, but that won't mean that they're entitled to a place," explained a spokeswoman for the Advisory Centre for Education, which advises thousands of disappointed parents every year. "It could be that most of the places are committed to siblings of the pupils already there." Most schools still operate criteria like the distance parents live from the school, according to ACE, but these parameters can shrink as a school's popularity increases. Many parents also don't understand that "parental choice" means "modified choice" rather than an absolute right to the school they want.
"It's a nightmare," admitted the spokeswoman. "Although no one can condone cheating, it's not surprising that parents do it."
ACE reports that the season when it is deluged with calls from distraught parents who have failed to get the schools they want is growing longer every year. Alarmingly, the huge pressure on places at popular schools now appears to be moving down to primary school and even nursery level, according to John Coe, spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education. He says that many parents of pre-school children already have their hopes set on a particular secondary school. To ensure their child's eventual admission, they must take their nursery voucher to the correct feeder primary.
Appeals for primary admission are now rising at a faster rate than those for secondary places. John Coe partly blames local management of schools, which means that schools can no longer afford to leave places empty. There is no slack in the system and no room to allow cheating.
What can be done to deter the cheats? The head of a popular Hertfordshire primary school sends round the education welfare officers to check if addresses are genuine. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities recommends withdrawing a place from a pupil whose parents are found to have deceived the school. It has also advised local authorities that they can prosecute deceitful parents, although there have been no court cases so far, according to an AMA spokesman.
"If parents get caught, they're usually so worried by the threat to reveal their identity that they will agree to move their child," he said. But these sanctions won't destroy the fundamental problem. John Coe argues that a system governed by market forces can never be fair. "League tables produce a pecking order of schools like the one in Halifax, where all the children rejected by everyone else are flung into The Ridings, and where people are paying Pounds 25 a week to rent false addresses in the catchment area of one of the better schools," he said. "Parents don't want this rat-race. What they do want is a good local school."