Choice, what choice?

4th April 1997 at 01:00
The season of parental appeals is upon us, reinforced by extravagant promises of yet more choice from the political parties.

Last year, my daughter appealed against Surrey County Council's refusal to allow my eldest grandson to move from infant to junior school. She and her husband had four boys aged under seven at the time. I went with her to the appeal, a process I can only describe as a time-consuming, misleading, obstructive farce, with all the odds stacked against the parents.

After two years at St Martin's C of E Infant School, in Epsom, we were devastated when my grandson was barred from moving to the junior school, a logic difficult to follow as the two schools are on the same site with the same uniform and shared facilities. A freak of geography, perhaps unique to Surrey, decreed that he was no longer in the catchment area, although still living in the same house.

More bewilderingly, there were 70 pupils in the infant year group and the admission figure of the junior school was 90, yet seven pupils were refused entry on catchment grounds. County Hall had already advised my daughter that she should consider another junior school, with a veiled threat that delay would further reduce her choice.

Resisting such pressure, my daughter and her husband submitted an appeal at the beginning of March, which was finally heard with a dozen others at the end of May. The panel was made up of three elderly men from elsewhere in the county, with an educaton officer and the headteacher of the junior school representing the local authority. All had seen the written submissions and knew of the anxiety these pupils had felt when excluded from a recent class visit to the school next door.

The LEA official commented that catchment areas change annually and attending the infant school did not guarantee transfer to the junior school. I sketched out an ironic scenario in which education officers take a map, and adjust catchment lines at the edges until sufficient pupils have been eliminated. To my amazement, he agreed this was not far from reality. Is this Surrey's version of the National Lottery?

He then claimed that Surrey did not have feeder schools, to which I replied that the movement of more than 90 per cent of pupils from St Martin's Infant to St Martin's Junior certainly gave the appearance of it being a closely-linked "feeder" school. He had no explanation as to why the seven unfortunate pupils not transferring were being discriminated against. Six children from other infant schools were also appealing.

As I had another, younger grandson in the school on the same site, I asked why Surrey's policy of priority to siblings was not applied, to be told it was a one-way system, upwards only.

The headteacher was adamant that not another child could be fitted into her school, which had filled the additional places from outside. Class size should not exceed 30. Crowding, size of corridors, fire hazards and double desks were all cited as obstacles to the entry of a single additional child, in spite of the officer's repetition that Surrey had no policy on class size. The officer then suggested my grandson would not want to be in a class of 31, ignorant of the fact that his current infant class had 35 children in it.

The final issue was how to cope without a car with four boys, one at playschool, one under two, and the prospect of having to take the other two in opposite directions to schools neither of which admitted pupils before 8.50am. The bureaucrat suggested doubling the pain by taking both boys away from their schools, again unaware that the alternative school was full in the infant division.

Two days after the hearing, all 13 sets of parents had their appeals dismissed on the grounds that ad-mission would prejudice the delivery of efficient education. An appeal was lodged with the Secretary of State, and within two weeks a standard letter was returned rejecting the appeal, which could have been upheld only if Surrey had been deemed to have acted unreasonably. Curiously, the letter came from the "Parental Choice Division".

So, my daughter and her husband had to look elsewhere and chose Stamford Green Primary School, Epsom, where the headteacher and staff were extremely welcoming and accommodating. Their professional and caring attitude paid off because on the penultimate day of term my daughter received a phone call from County Hall offering a place at the original junior school. After much thought she and her husband decided to let the two children join Stamford Green.

A year later they have no regrets and believe that local hearsay evidence about a school's reputation is often based on historical rather than contemporary knowledge.

David Turner is assistant director for initial teacher education at the School of Education, Sheffield Hallam University

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