Twenty years ago parents were promised that they would become 'consumers', liberated to choose the schools they liked, but a soaring number are being left bitterly disappointed.Jeremy Sutcliffe reports
For two decades now education policy has been driven by the concept of "parental choice". English state schools have been forced to compete in a marketplace, turning parents - at least in theory - into consumers.
But is the system working? The evidence suggests not. According to the latest government figures (1999-2000), almost one in ten parents (9.6 per cent) is so unhappy with the secondary places allocated to their child that they lodge a formal appeal. This is double the proportion of appeals made in the mid-90s (see graph) and there is every sign that things can only get worse.
Worryingly this rising tide of discontent is not evenly spread across the country. In London, more than a fifth of the 78,767 secondary places allocated in 1999-2000 were the subject of an appeal. Dig a bit further and you discover that seven of the authorities with the highest proportion of appeals are London boroughs, each of them the subject of complaints from more than a quarter of parents.
Top of the list is Enfield, where an incredible 65.5 per cent of parents appealed against their child's secondary school allocation. The borough's difficulties were highlighted in an Office for Standards in Education report published last year which described its admission arrangements as "highly problematic". It found that at any one time between 100 and 150 pupils, mostly from transient families, did not have a place, and were obliged to make do with "limited" tuition in local libraries, a problem which persists.
Underlying Enfield's difficulty is a local population explosion which has led to a shortage of school places. Many of the borough's 16 secondary schools also take in pupils from neighbouring Haringey and Barnet, with the result that some are massively oversubscribed.
Such problems, which also afflict primary schools, point to serious weaknesses in the admissions system. Enfield is far from alone in having many popular schools and an influx of outsiders. Every day some 60,000 pupils travel between London boroughs to attend school.
This cross-border traffic was spurred by a landmark legal judgment in 1989 against the London borough of Greenwich, which held that schools should take eligible pupils who live nearest them, regardless of local-authority boundaries.
The effect of this has been felt throughout the country, with local education authorities being obliged to alter admissions arrangements which hitherto had favoured pupils living within their own borders.
But, while this helps to account for the relentless rise in appeals in some urban areas, it is not the only reason why the admissions system is in a mess.
The development of grant-maintained schools in the 1990s, now foundation schools with much the same powers, created hundreds of admissions authorities acting independently of councils and often in competition - Essex alone has 192 admission authorities.
The Labour government, having inherited this market free-for-all from the Conservatives, attempted to restore order with a new code of practice, which came into force in September last year. This says admissions arrangements should be "clear, fair and objective" and "enable parents' preferences of school "to be met to the maximum extent possible".
The code also urges education authorities and schools responsible for their own admissions to co-ordinate their arrangements, in paticular over the tricky issue of admitting children excluded from other schools.
But ministers seem to have concluded that the code is not working. Last week Education Secretary Estelle Morris issued new proposals which will give its guidelines statutory teeth.
For instance, she has proposed that admissions forums, which currently co-ordinate admissions arrangements on a voluntary basis in some areas, be given statutory power. She is also planning to give local-authority comprehensives the right to complain about foundation schools' admissions policies.
Will the changes work? Martin Rogers, co-ordinator of the Education Network, an independent policy and research group supported by LEAs, is pleasantly surprised by the Government's plans. He says: I think local authorities will welcome these proposals. It is the schools that took themselves out of the collective system which have wreaked havoc on admissions. This gives LEAs the opportunity to restore a reasonable degree of equity.
"At present in areas such as London parents can apply for dozens of schools. That will be ended at a stroke. What is being proposed is an application on a single form. No parent will get more than one offer. That's a dramatic change."
Undoubtedly some middle-class parents will see this an assault on their right to choose. It should stop such parents from making multiple applications, holding on to places at popular non-selective schools while applying to top-performing selective or church schools.
Although popular foundation and church schools will continue to enjoy high autonomy over how they choose pupils, the Government has signalled its intention to tighten up procedures in oversubscribed schools.
This follows reports from the schools adjudicator about widespread malpractice including the use of interviews with parents by non-religious schools, which will be specifically ruled out in a revised code.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the promised changes will reduce the ever-growing number of appeals. A study for the Department for Education and Skills found that, across England, 85 per cent of parents were allocated places at their favoured school, but in London only 70 per cent were. According to a senior schools administrator, "London is a disaster area" for parental choice.
In the long-term, ministers hope to raise standards in struggling comprehensives, many of them in the capital, removing the need for parents to look beyonnd their local school. Estelle Morris wants to kick-start the process by forcing foundation and church schools to take their fair share of difficult pupils.
One novel potential solution has been put forward by Dr Anne West, director of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics.
She says: "Local education authorities should be forced to collect and publish, for all schools in their area, the percentage of parents who get their first-preference school."
Parental-choice league tables? Why not? At least that way we will be able to see whether the new, ever-more diverse secondary system is working.
THE RIGHT PLACE AT LAST
For parent Catherine Asbridge the nightmare is over. After two years of worrying about her son Daniel's future she now has the satisfaction of knowing he has a place at the school he always wanted to go to.
Being just half a mile away from his home you might have thought Rickmansworth school in south-west Hertfordshire would have offered him an automatic place. But so popular is the school, which this year had 850 children competing for just 185 places, that he was initially rejected.
Although an "all-ability" school, Rickmansworth selects 35 per cent of its intake by ability and a further 10 per cent according to musical aptitude. Daniel, who is dyslexic, failed to score well enough in the school's ability test to gain automatic entry. And, as an only child, was unable to benefit from its sibling rule (which gives preference to children with brothers and sisters already on the register).
To make matters worse, says Catherine, Daniel's other two choices allowed under Hertfordshire's admissions scheme were also rejected. In April, they decided to appeal and were finally offered a place by an appeals tribunal last month.
"It's been incredibly stressful. We have been worrying about this since Daniel started the fifth year," Catherine said.
The school is one of five oversubscribed foundation and voluntary-aided schools in the area which partially select pupils. Two years ago the Government imposed a co-ordinated admissions system on the county after hundreds of children in the Watford and Rickmansworth area were left without school places.
Rickmansworth head Stephen Burton said that, although not perfect, the new system had eased difficulties for parents. "The south-west Hertfordshire scheme is a model that the Government could investigate further," he said.