Maureen O'Connor reports that parents are increasingly aware of their rights to challenge admissions decisions
Thousands of parents across the country have been left deeply frustrated with the admissions appeals system having failed to get their child into their chosen school next term.
But the frustration is not confined to parents. Local education authorities are also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the appeals process which they regard as excessively expensive and time-consuming.
There are no up-to-date national figures for the number of appeals against admission decisions because grant-maintained schools are under no obligation to divulge how many appeals they process. But the consensus is that the numbers have risen steadily during the 1990s and that the LEA total is now well over the 34,000 recorded by the Department for Education for 1992-3.
Roughly a third of appeals are either withdrawn or settled when a family is offered an acceptable school place. Of those which reach an appeal committee, more than half involving primary children are won by the family. And as the higher birthrate begins to impinge, primary appeals are rising fast. At secondary level the success rate is much lower, with between a quarter and a third of appeals being upheld.
Bob Morris, former education officer of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, has little time for government policy on admissions. The present situation, in which parents are thoroughly confused, and very often desperately disappointed, is a direct result of an emphasis on "choice" which does not really exist, he says.
His research for the AMA, completed in 1992, has recently been updated by Gulam Mayet, a former Birmingham education officer, whose conclusions are very similar. Appeals are rising, Morris and Mayet conclude, especially in urban areas, even though the number of parents apparently getting their first-choice school remains very high.
"I think what is happening is that some parents are selecting schools they think they have a realistic chance of getting a child into though it may not be the one they would really like. So they may not feel very positive about their 'choice' at the end of the day although technically they have got what they asked for," Bob Morris says.
"Conversely, parents who are turned down may feel that they have little to lose by appealing, so are taking that avenue in increasing numbers as they become aware of their rights. What is still very clear is that many families are going through agony."
This is confirmed by the Advisory Centre for Education, which fields hundreds of calls about admissions at this time of year. School admissions, they say, have been enormously complicated by several factors. One is the advent of GM schools, which set their own entrance criteria which may be covertly, if not legally, selective.
The second is the increasing reluctance of schools to admit children with special educational needs or behavioural problems, even though discrimination against them is not legal. A third factor is the increasing readiness of parents to shop around. Some urban authorities such as Bristol, and some of the inner London boroughs, are suffering badly as families send their children to schools beyond their boundaries. The "Greenwich judgment" ensures that the receiving authority cannot turn such applicants away simply because they come from a different LEA area.
As a result, schools close to local authority boundaries find they may have to reject "native" children in favour of those from elsewhere whose families have decided they favour a village rather than an urban school, or a grammar school rather than a comprehensive. This can infuriate local parents who find they cannot get access to what they regard as "their" school. And those who cannot get what they want are increasingly ready to fight schools and LEAs all the way, and, if they can afford it, get legal help to do it.
Kent is an authority which has more admissions problems than most with its complex mixture of selective, grant-maintained, technology and non-selective schools. Last year its education officers handled 722 school choice appeals and another 707 against the results of the grammar school assessment procedure. On top of that there is a handful of appeals against exclusions. "Our heads do not exclude for flippant reasons," says Maggie Gregory, in charge of pupil and student services. And parents are becoming aware of the SEN tribunal, which Ms Gregory reckons will cost the authority about Pounds 1,500 per child.
Each type of appeal is immensely time-consuming, according to Maggie Gregory. For admissions disputes there is a three-tier process, which begins with cases being referred to the area education officer. About half make it to an education sub-committee and half again reach the statutory appeal committee. A special panel sits to consider the work of children whose parents claim have been unfairly rejected for a grammar school place. About half of the admissions appeals are eventually successful, at a cost of about five to seven days' work at the sub-committee stage and another 10 to 13 days at the statutory appeal committee stage for one or two officers and two or three members.
This leaves out of account the input of the independent members of appeal panels, who are becoming hard to recruit in some areas. Hadrian Southern, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, who is a volunteer member of Kent's appeals panel, says he may be expected to spend two or three days at a time hearing several appeals for one school. Generally, between May and August, he spends two or three hours a week on appeals.
The whole issue can be a highly emotive one. This year Kent is in the horrifying position of dealing with a family which is claiming that the death of their daughter, an asthma-sufferer, is at least partly the result of her failure to gain admission to a GM grammar school much closer to home than the lea grammar where she eventually gained a place. The LEA tried to make the journey easier for her by providing a taxi but she still spent up to two hours each day in rush-hour fumes. Maggie Gregory welcomes the fact that in future the LEA will have the right to direct the admission of SEN children to GM schools - although a GM school will be able to appeal against such an allocation to the Secretary of State. She thinks that in this particular case the LEA would have made a direction, but equally that the governors, who fill their places on ability criteria alone, would have appealed against it.
In some LEAs the problem of admissions and appeals has become so acute that the authorities are making strenuous efforts to persuade schools and parents to behave more rationally. "We keep hearing of these cases where some parents have been offered five school places and others none," says Jim Hendy, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers. "It is obviously in parents' interests to have a less confusing system."
Solihull has tackled the problem by stepping up its advice services for parents of children facing secondary transfer. "We think that if they get better advice at the initial stages, not through the schools but in our literature and in libraries and so on, they will find their application easier to handle and may be more realistic in their choices," says Ian Morrey, Solihull's admissions officer.
They could cut down the number of appeals, he thinks, simply by persuading parents that if they sit tight they may well get what they want before the end of the summer term as waiting lists adjust themselves. The borough is watching its appeals total with interest this year to see whether its initiative is successful.
Bromley, which only has three secondary schools left under its own control, concluded that the whole appeals process had become so bureaucratic and time-consuming that something drastic would have to be done.
From this year the LEA will administer a joint admissions system for all the schools in the borough, county and GM alike. Ironically, as the secondary system has settled down, the number of appeals against primary placements has gone up.
There is no doubt that parents are becoming more choosy, and more aware of their rights," says Bromley education officer Robert Jenkins. "We have already experienced the introduction of lawyers at admissions appeals and no less than three at an exclusion appeal. The same thing is already happening at the SEN tribunal.
Is there a simple solution to this growing litigiousness which would satisfy LEAs alarmed at escalating costs and parents who have been led to believe they have an absolute right to choose a school? Apart from painfully dispatching ministers who insist on inflating the legal right to "express a preference" into "parental choice", Bob Morris believes that only parental education will work in the long run.
"We have to persuade parents that the choice they make at five or eleven is not the be-all and end-all of their children's education. Schools change, children change, and what is important is the ongoing relationship between the professionals and the family. One decision is not crucial."
Keith Forrest, a Staffordshire education officer who has been doing research on admissions for his PhD, has concluded that the much-maligned system of catchment areas for schools cuts down on parental dissatisfaction. Most parents, he thinks, do prefer their local school, all other things being equal.
Beyond that he, like the Labour party, is somewhat taken with the idea of establishing national criteria for admissions, covering GM as well as county schools. But elsewhere there is scepticism about the practicality of that approach.
"No one could write a set of principles for admissions which took every variation of local circumstances into account," says Bob Morris.
GOING TO APPEAL: THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK
Admissions are handled by the local education authority according to published criteria. Parents who are not offered the place of their choice may appeal to a statutory appeal committee which includes a councillor and independent members.
Admissions may be dealt with by the governors who can impose admission criteria which aim to preserve the religious character of a school. Appeals from parents are heard by a governors' appeals committee which includes a majority of independent members. GRANT-MAINTAINED SCHOOLS
Admissions are handled by the governors who draw up their own criteria. Appeals from parents are heard by a governors' appeals committee which includes a majority of independent members.
Parents of an excluded child can make representations to an appeal committee of governors in county schools, and to the local education authority. Parents can then appeal to a statutory appeal committee similar in composition to the appeal committee which considers admission disputes. The governors of voluntary and GM schools must set up their own independent appeal committee.
THE LAST RESORT
Parents who feel that their appeal has not been handled properly can complain to the Secretary of State for Education or, in the case of LEA schools, to the Local Government Ombudsman.
THE SEN APPEAL TRIBUNAL
Under the new Code of Practice for children with special educational needs, parents have a final right of appeal to an independent tribunal set up to consider appeals against the refusal of a local education authority to carry out a formal assessment, to issue a statement or to re-assess a child's needs.
The party's new policy document, Diversity and Excellence, says schools' admission policies should be based on parental preference but should be agreed with the LEA. It argues that parents should be able to take their admission grievances to an independent local appeals body rather than the existing three-member panels which include one LEA representative.
Further information "Code of practice on procedure for admission, exclusion and re-instatement appeals: county, voluntary and maintained special schools" (Pounds 10 each or Pounds 5 for orders of more than 10), Association of Metropolitan Authorities, available from LGMB, Arndale House, Arndale Centre, Luton LU1 2TS."Grant-maintained schools: appeal committees", an information pack produced by the Department for Education for chairs of governors."Special education needs tribunal: how to appeal", free from the DFE.ACE Handbooks on SEN including information on appeals (Pounds 7.50 plus Pounds 1 postage) and on choice and appeals (Pounds 4.50 plus Pounds 1 postage), and information sheet on exclusion and appeals (Pounds 1), available from ACE, 1b Aberdeen Studios, 22-24 Highbury Grove, London N52EA.