INSPECTORS have exposed the huge hurdles facing parents trying to get a child into one of the sought-after schools in Barnet, north London.
Complex admission arrangements were criticised by the inspectors in their report on the authority's education service, published today. They also say that Barnet's high-achieving schools could do even better.
During the inspection, parents of 17 pupils rejected places they had been given in local schools and were considering educating their children at home.
The future of the borough's three grammars - Henrietta Barnet, one of the top-performing schools in the country; Queen Elizabeth boys' and St Michael's RC - is likely to be decided by parental ballots later this year. Around a third of secondary pupils are drawn from outside Barnet
Barnet has one of the highest number of appeals over school places. The inspectors say problems arise because there are 13 different admission authorities in Barnet and parents find the arrangements complicated.
The education service deals with nine community schools, but the other 12 schools manage their own admissions. While the report acknowledges that schools have above-average results, it says they have the potential to do even better.
More than half of the secondaries are former grant-maintained schools and accustomed to greater independence. Inspectors say they are sceptical about what the local authority can dofor them and in return the education department has failed to make clear its role in monitoring and challenging schools.
The council is run by Labour and Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives as the largest group. It was among the first councils to respond to the Government's suggestion of setting up scrutiny committees to monitor performance.
However, inspectors say it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the new officer structure. There is a director for education and children, Martin Kempson, who is one of five strategic directors, but does not line-manage the education service. There is also a chief education officer, Lyndsey Stone, but she is only one of five officers concerned with pupils and schools. Inpsectors suggest the lack of clarity about areas of responsibility is leading to very heavy work-loads for some senior officers. Schools are also unclear about how the structure works.
Overall, Barnet is judged to be providing effective support to schools in most key areas. Its failings include long delays in statementing children with special needs and a poor tradition of collecting and analysing performance data.
The report concludes: "There is thus considerable scope for improvement and no room for complacency. The schools generally perform well, but have the potential to do even better. The local education authority should challenge them to do so more consistently."