Parents are pretty astute at knowing what they want from education for their children, and they'll soon find which schools in an area are worth attending. A parent new to the area will simply chat to her neighbours, assemble a shortlist, usually a very short one, and, as the Government has said parents have the right to send their offspring to any school of their choice, off they go to the one they've chosen. Which will be full. The head will then have to explain the "admission criteria", and the more he or she tries to explain it, the less the parent understands. Kafka is a doddle in comparison.
"But I only live two streets away," Mrs Jones says. "That's true," I reply, "but everybody we've admitted into that year group lives nearer."
"Well, how is it that Mrs Smith has got her children in here then?" Mrs Jones persists. "She lives further away than me."
"Because Mrs Smith's children are in a different year group, and there were spaces." Mrs Jones begins to get a little irritated. "Well, what about Mrs Brown, then? Her kids come from East Dulwich and that's miles away."
I sigh; I've been over this ground so often. "But Mrs Brown originally lived just over the road," I explain. "She's been rehoused in East Dulwich but her children are still entitled to come here."
"Then how did Mrs Green get her Jimmy in here? She lives in the same flats as me."
"True. But Jimmy lives one floor lower than you."
"So what?" "It makes Jimmy 10 yards nearer. And we have to measure it all out on a large-scale map with a miniature trundle wheel. Look, I'll show you. You can even have a go if you likeI" The conversation continues in this vein for 20 minutes and I always end up explaining the classic Catch-22 situation about the first admission rule - which is that other members of the family can come in if one of them is already attending. The trouble is, of course, you've got to get one on roll in the first place, which brings everything back to distance again.
It's all very confusing for parents, but they do have one potent weapon the admission appeal. Providing they can make a good enough case for getting a child into the school they've chosen, it's likely they'll win, and the school is then obliged to take the child over and above the legally specified intake number.
If there are lots of appeals, and half a dozen are successful, the school can have a real problem. These days, more and more parents are opting for this route, some of them becoming increasingly wily in the methods they use to gain entry.
Appeals are heard by three independent panel members, with the parent and school putting their respective cases. The appeal committee isn't daft, of course, and they can usually spot a forged doctor's letter with a little skilful questioning.
But a while back I seemed to be at the mercy of two regular panel members who believed everything the parents said, and nothing I said. My reception numbers were growing alarmingly, and appeals were being heard virtually every week. I even took photographs along to the appeals, to show how crowded the classrooms were, but it made no difference. I needed to find a solution, and after a hasty meeting with my staff we came up with a cunning plan.
I wrote to both panel members, inviting them into school to see the effect the overcrowding was having. They dutifully arrived and I opened the door to one of the reception classrooms. They were horrified; children were crammed into every nook and cranny and almost stood on each other's shoulders, while the harassed teacher rushed around.
We moved through all the infant classrooms; they saw an identical scene in each. Both left the site subdued and concerned. Once they'd gone, we quickly returned to normality, and the 13 extra children we'd been shipping from classroom to classroom just ahead of the visitors went back to their normal classes. It seemed to do the trick. In subsequent appeal sessions, the panel members made decisions a little more cautiously.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south London. email: firstname.lastname@example.org