Widespread failure of schools to comply with the Parent's Charter is denying parents vital information, says the Consumers' Association in a damning report on school prospectuses and governors' reports.
Just one out of 80 schools contacted by the association sent both an annual report and a prospectus which met all the requirements of the charter, introduced by Prime Minister John Major in an attempt to improve the flow of information about schools to parents.
Of 141 documents received, 130 did not meet the legal requirements, says the association in the first of a series of policy reports on the education debate.
Philip Cullum, the association's policy manager, said: "Our findings are extremely disappointing. There has been little sign of improvements since we conducted similar research three years ago - non-compliance is widespread. Parents simply aren't being given enough information to help them choose their child's school, and to hold the school's governors to some account.
"The quality of information in prospectuses was much better than in governors' reports - but there are still problems. The best schools managed to sound welcoming - but the worst implied that parents were an unavoidable inconvenience, rather than encouraging them to become more involved with their child's education."
Mr Cullum wants local education authorities to monitor whether prospectuses and reports comply with legal requirements. There must be more training so headteachers and governors are aware of their legal responsibilities, he said, and good practice should be encouraged.
The association also wants schools to explain their decisions and make more of an effort to involve parents.
Governors should ensure a sensible balance within their reports so that minor issues are not given more space than major ones; avoid jargon; and recognise that long documents are not necessarily better than shorter ones.
John Major's charter promises parents a report about each child; regular reports from independent inspectors; performance tables for all local schools; a prospectus or brochure about individual schools; and an annual report from governors.
Forty per cent of the primary school reports did not include any information about the national test results, while one in five failed to include absence rates. One in four failed to include a full financial statement, and only one mentioned the governors' expenses.
Two secondary schools provided no information on exam results, and less than half of secondary schools included details of national curriculum assessments.
The association was also critical of jargon such as "diagnostic first year", "enhanced guidance initiatives", "dysfunctional behaviour," and "special needs education is both a horizontal and vertical concept". Only one school provided a glossary.
Imbalance of information in some prospectuses was criticised. For example, some schools carried four pages on sex education and half a page for pastoral care, and others had three pages to list staff and six lines on sex education.
The Consumers' Association's report, Information for Parents about Schools, costs Pounds 10 from 2 Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DF.