Advice plan for parents falters
Ministers have failed to deliver on their pledge to create local networks of advisers to help disadvantaged families win places in popular schools, official figures show.
The statistics, provided to Parliament, show that more than half of authorities in England have just one "choice adviser" or none at all.
The development of choice advisers was part of Labour's plan to raise standards by increasing choice and diversity in state schools. The scheme was supposed to help parents from the least well-off communities compete with the middle classes in getting their children into the most desirable schools.
The Government's 2005 education White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, announcing the policy, said: "By 2008, every local authority will have a network of choice advisers in place."
But Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, revealed last month that of 139 English authorities which responded, 19 had no choice advisers, 70 had just one and 27 had two. Just 23 councils had three or more choice advisers. The statistics are the latest bad news for a scheme dogged by controversy.
Sheffield Hallam University research commissioned by the Government and published this summer found that choice advisers' main aim of helping disadvantaged parents was being "challenged" by them mainly meeting the needs of the self-referring middle classes.
Most of the authorities studied by the researchers were found to be promoting choice advice services through open evenings or letters that tended to attract proactive parents rather than the less savvy ones.
A senior civil servant admitted to MPs in January that the Government did not know how many councils had appointed advisers.
Asked to comment on the latest statistics this week, a Department for Children, Schools and Families spokeswoman said it now had figures showing that 145 of the 149 authorities with funding for choice advisers had one or more in post.
"The remaining four were in the process of replacing choice advisers and in the meantime had been providing choice advice through other routes," she said.
"Local authorities have considerable flexibility. Some may employ only one choice adviser, while others may need more than one."
Local government leaders warned when the scheme was unveiled that, with just Pounds 6 million a year to split between 149 councils, they would struggle to provide the networks ministers had promised.
The Government said they would only be needed on a seasonal basis during the autumn when parents were making school choices.
Ms Hughes' figures show that Nottinghamshire has 16 choice advisers, twice as many as any other authority. Scott Hollingsworth, the council's senior education officer, said existing staff provided the service on a part-time basis.
The DCSF had only provided Nottinghamshire with Pounds 50,000, which was spent on promotional material rather than staff.