Few options in era of choice

18th November 2005 at 00:00
TES survey shows in worst-hit areas up to half of parents fail to get children into first-choice schools. Graeme Paton reports.

Lady Margaret secondary school is one of the most popular comprehensives in London. This year there were more than 700 applications for just 90 places at the all-girls' school near Fulham, and it seems some parents will go to extreme lengths to ensure their children get in.

One teacher at a west London primary claimed that she was living in the caretakers' flat at her own school in an attempt to get her daughter into Lady Margaret.

Joan Olivier, headteacher at the school, said: "Parents look at league tables, do a great deal of research and want their child to go to the best school. But getting children into their first-choice secondary is now very difficult."

Recent research shows that average property prices in areas surrounding the UK's 10 most improved schools rose by almost 100 per cent in four years, compared with less than 70 per cent for houses further away.

This week's TES survey appears to underline the problems families face trying to find a place at England's most popular state schools. A survey of 46 of the 150 English councils shows that up to half of parents in some parts of the country are forced to accept other schools after children were turned away from their first choice.

Children in the capital face more competition than most. Apart from its relatively well-developed transport links, the London-wide admissions system makes it easier for parents to apply to any school in the 33 London boroughs and eight neighbouring councils. Only one London borough responding to the survey, Enfield, in north London, said parents had a nine-out-of-10 chance or better of securing their first-choice school.

Children living in areas with the most fragmented education systems, where there are high numbers of schools controlling their own admissions, or selecting on faith or academic grounds, were worst off.

In Barnet there are 20 state secondary schools, but seven are voluntary-aided faith schools (including two academically-selective girls'

grammars), four are foundation schools (including one boys' grammar) and there is one academy. "We have a diverse range of schools, attracting a high number of applicants from across north London and further afield,"

said a council spokeswoman. "The faith-based and selective schools do not give any priority to Barnet children."

The education white paper will increase the number of faith schools and academies, allow popular schools to expand and hand the running of new schools to independent charitable trusts, which control their own admissions.

Critics say it will exacerbate problems over admissions. Last year the the Office of the Schools Adjudicator dealt with 227 complaints, 43 fewer than in 2003-4 but up on the 78 complaints made in 2001-2.

Blenheim high, Surrey, grew by a third two years ago following unprecedented demand for places. But it was still forced to turn away some 20 per cent of applicants this September.

Teresa Leech, the head, said: "Schools are obviously delighted to be over-subscribed, it shows that parents place a high level of confidence and trust in the school. However, we also appreciate what a stressful time the admissions process is for parents and children."

In Surrey, overall, 91 per cent of children got their first-choice school this year.

Just five councils responding to The TES survey said initiatives in the white paper would improve standards.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "Competition for places is already a growing problem. I don't see how opening up the range of choice is going to make it any easier."

A spokesman for Dudley council said: "The variety of resulting (admissions) arrangements could baffle parents and make the aims of a co-ordinated admissions system difficult to achieve."

Stoke council said: "It will encourage all schools to try and select pupils and will lead to more sink schools."

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

COUNCILS OF CHOICE

Top of the table for offering first-choice secondary schools (with percentage) Oldham 99

Blackburn with Darwen 98

Knowsley 98

Cornwall 97

East Riding 97

Stoke 97

BOTTOM OF THE TABLE

Barnet 52

Westminster 59

Croydon 65

Sutton 66

Brent 70

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