Rush to appeal turns arbiter into battleground
The independent appeals committee - originally the arbiter of occasional disputes about which school a child could attend - has now become a battleground. More and more parents, from the distressed to the belligerent, are fighting to the last in the hope that the panel will overturn the school allocations procedure.
In the assertive culture of the mid-1990s, which emphasises the rights of the individual against the institution, a hearing before the appeals committee has become just one further stage in the admission process for motivated families who do not obtain a place at their preferred school.
The explosion in appeals is beginning to undermine the basic admissions process, and indicates that a significant number of parents are dissatisfied with the education which their child is being offered. In my own authority, appeals increased rapidly from 20 in 1993 to 50 in 1994, to more than 200 in 1995. This does not include appeals for local grant-maintained schools. There is no reason to believe that the exponential increase is peculiar to just one district.
Two distinct trends underlie most appeals. Social factors such as single parenthood or the preference for a trusted carer to look after a child are often an impetus. Some parents believe school attendance should fit in with their lifestyle, not that they should adapt. Others make multiple appeals to keep their child out of a school they dislike.
The first choice school may not be the local one. Some parents want to avoid the local option at all costs. This reflects changes in attitude towards admissions; changes brought about by open enrolment. Several years ago, cases which went to appeal tended to be where a child had been refused a place locally. Now parents are asserting their right to state a preference for any school.
It is increasingly apparent that parents from all walks of life see no hope for their children in certain schools. Moreover, they are taking a long-term view, arguing that any improvements which are currently being effected will take years to filter through. Current quality of education and pastoral care are frequently cited as reasons why the child should go to the school they are appealing for. Some parents explicitly state fears for their child's future in either moral or academic terms if they do not gain a place at that school. The prospect of their child being taught in a large class is not a worry in these circumstances. Parents believe that certain schools will do better for their child even if classes are overcrowded and facilities cramped. Because more and more cases are based on subjective parental assessments of their child rather than objective factors, appeals committees are increasingly being asked to apply the wisdom of Solomon to questions which should not fall within their remit.
For example, current educational policy favours comprehensive schools. Most appeals committee members would not wish to be party to a selective admissions process, particularly one which is indirect. Nevertheless, some well-motivated children live in run-down, problem areas and parents are often keen for them to be given a chance at a school with a good reputation. If the preferred school is over-subscribed, such children are offered places at their local school. When that school is widely acknowledged to perform well below reasonable expectations, how does an appeals committee act? In such cases, members inevitably accept that the child's development could be prejudiced in the local school and uphold the appeal.
When social or family problems are presented as exceptional circumstances, committees are again sailing in uncharted waters. Beneath an emotional concern for each child traumatised by the break-up of a marriage or a single mother who cannot afford a childminder lie deeper social questions.
How far ought circumstances which may have originated from lack of responsibility on the part of parents be taken into account? Appeals committee members are aware that upholding appeals on social grounds may be seen as unfair by other parents who, because they are married and still living together, are effectively being required to accept what they see as an inferior education for their child.
Appeals are beginning to reflect an education system in crisis. Rightly or wrongly, schools' reputations are firmly fixed in the public perception. Parents frequently tell appeals committees: "My child's future is in your hands." Decent, law-abiding citizens are quietly prepared to face the consequences of keeping their children away from schools which they believe will fail them. As increasing numbers of parents are going to appeal, an increasing number are also involving the press, the courts and the Secretary of State in bids to reverse unfavourable decisions. Administrators are already looking with foreboding at what this summer will bring. The more appeals succeed, the more parents are going to invoke their right to use the appeals procedure. This will put an increasing strain on the appeals system itself, already groaning from trying to accommodate all parents at a convenient time for them, while not making unreasonable demands on committee members who are unpaid volunteers.
Schools which are full to crisis point will find themselves coping with yet higher numbers. In 1995, more than 30 per cent of appeals in my area were upheld. Appeals committee members recognise that prejudice will occur to some children if they are not educated in a particular school. In the majority of cases, committee members will continue to be harsh, sometimes rejecting powerful arguments which would have succeeded a few years ago, because other cases are stronger and the school is too full to take all the pupils wanting places.
If the appeals process is not to be an emotional battleground and if school admissions are not to become unduly protracted, investment must be made to bring the less popular schools up to scratch in parents' eyes. Parents know of their right to appeal. They will only stop exercising it when they believe their child will receive a top-quality education at their allocated school.
Denise Bates chairs appeals panels for her local authority