A pound;12m advice scheme to help disadvantaged families has been hijacked by the middle class
Local advisers introduced to help disadvantaged families win places for their children in popular schools have been hijacked by pushy parents.
Research commissioned by the Government suggests problems have arisen with its pound;12 million "choice advisers" scheme, which covers all local authorities.
The advisers were meant to be targeted at the least well-off families who lacked the information to compete with middle-class parents. But a Sheffield Hallam University study found most advisers were "challenged by the balance between meeting the needs of self-referring parents and committing sufficient resources to the more difficult task of accessing the more hard to reach".
Some were not trying to assess how many target parents they had reached and were simply aiming to raise the overall number of applications for school places, and using that as a measure of success. The study also found strong reservations among advisers about the admissions system they were supposed to be part of.
"`Choice' unrealistically raised parents' expectations of gaining a place in their desired school, making their advisory role more complex," the report said. "They explained to parents that `choice' meant the right to express preferences."
The study follows an admission from a senior civil servant earlier this year that the Government did not know how many advisers had actually been appointed in what is meant to be a national scheme.
Sir Bruce Liddington, the schools commissioner, also conceded it was impossible to give everyone a choice and that he should be known as the national champion for "expressing a preference".
The Sheffield team looked at how advisers operated in six local authorities. They found most services were promoted via school open evenings or letters and information packs sent to all parents of pupils about to move into secondary schools. "Both of these methods generally attracted self-referring, information-seeking parents and fewer parents from their target groups," the report said.
The advisers also used referrals from schools and community groups to try to reach the disadvantaged. Although this helped them target a more diverse range of parents, the report warns that "reaching disengaged parents was still the most challenging element for all advisers".
Choice advisers in Kent conducted a postcode analysis of the 1,000 or so parents they have helped in the past two years and found that professional and middle-class parents were over-represented.
Jenny Young, a Kent adviser, said they were addressing the problem by working through family support workers to reach target parents. "We want to help the hard-to-reach but we don't want to become a hard-to-reach service," she said.
`Choice Advice Service: results of a pilot evaluation is at: www.dfes.gov.ukresearch.