Who's using the advisers intended to help poor people pick the right schools? You've guessed it: the middle classes

SUE DYER is a member of a select club. The Kent housewife is one of the few parents in the country to have used the services of a choice adviser. By 2008 every parent in England should have access to a network of them to help navigate their way through school admissions.

But for now only a handful of councils have appointed staff under the scheme and even fewer have put them into service.

Among the early adopters is Kent. And as England's largest education authority, with a hugely complicated secondary admissions system, it is the perfect place to see if choice advisers work.

If Mrs Dyer is anything to go by, the answer is yes. But she may not be quite what the ministers had in mind. Their intention was that the advisers should help children from "the most despondent communities". They would allow these disadvantaged parents to join the middle classes as consumers in the market for good school places.

However, the Kent experience suggests the families making use of choice advisers are not those at the bottom of the heap but middle - of-the-road parents who already have a working knowledge of the admissions system and just want detailed reassurance over their final choice. Kent is one of the few authorities to retain the 11-plus and operate a system of grammar and secondary moderns. Or, as the authority prefers to term them, "all ability" or high schools.

But it is not as simple as that. Within the county there are five areas that run 11-18 comprehensives, one with a three-tier middle school system and another where there is an "all ability" school admitting pupils from 11, and a selective grammar that takes pupils from the age of 13.

Kent parents must examine the admission criteria of each school within travelling distance, assess their child's chances of getting in, and work out which three preferences to put on their authority's common admission form.

They also have academic selection to deal with. Do they favour a grammar school and, if so, does their child have the ability to pass the 11-plus? Or would they rather opt out and try to send him or her to a comprehensive, if there is one near enough?

Mrs Dyer understood all that perfectly. Her 13-year-old son Charlie is already thriving at a grammar in Maidstone. This autumn, when it came to making the choice again, she wanted the same for her 10-year-old daughter Bethany. So she picked two local girls' grammars as her first choices. Her only concern was what would happen if Bethany failed the 11-plus. She wanted to be sure her daughter would attend the best high school possible, and she realised that would mean making her preference for one of them clear, in third place.

The only question was which one. She had a particular school in mind, but Bethany was likely to fall outside its catchment area and it was usually oversubscribed.

Mrs Dyer feared if she missed out on this school her daughter would end up in another much closer high school, which she thought unsuitable. So would it be better to put down a third high school which, though not her first choice, would be preferable to her worst case scenario?

That was where the choice adviser came in. It took a quick telephone call to Jenny Young, one of six advisers working across Kent, and the problem was solved.

"I just wanted to know if there was any chance of getting her into my preferred high school," said Mrs Dyer. "But Jenny Young advised me not to waste my options on it and that I would be better opting for the third school. She didn't want me not to get any of my choices. I was very grateful. She was so plain speaking and very helpful."

A satisfied customer then. But when the policy was officially announced in last year's education white paper, choice advisers were supposed to raise the aspirations of those who may not have felt they had any real choice.

By employing advisers and laying on free transport, the Government would allow the most disadvantaged families all the benefits of consumer "choice" .

But does Mrs Dyer really fit the bill? She does not see herself as middle class. But she already aspired to a grammar school education for her children and had a sophisticated understanding of the options.

As she said: "I went to the choice adviser because I didn't want to waste my choices and put down the wrong school."

Kent's statistics suggest she is typical. In total, 200 cases were referred to choice advisers this autumn, a fraction of the 15,800 pupils applying for secondary places. Of those, 132 were concerned, like Mrs Dyer, about the order in which they placed schools on the form, while another 47 sought general reassurance.


Choice advisers were introduced to help disadvantaged parents get their children into good schools.

The Government is ploughing pound;12 million into the scheme over the next two academic years.

Authorities in England receive at least pound;15,000 a year to pay the advisers for the two or three months when parents are applying for school places. More money is available for the poorest areas. All authorities must employ independent advisers by 2008, as part of the Government's drive to narrow social division.


John Simmonds, Kent's cabinet member for education and skills, said: "The (choice) advisers are basically there for any parents, but we have prioritised some areas because we feel that some don't necessarily have the highest aspirations for their children."

The county's 470 primary heads were asked to identify parents who could most benefit and give them leaflets about the advisers.

Jenny Young, who retired as head of admissions before becoming a choice adviser, described the families who have contacted her as "ordinary middle-of-the-road parents who are confused about a very difficult choice in their child's life".

But would the kind of parent not already taking an interest in choosing their child's school take any notice?

"It is a question of how do you target people who don't want to be targeted," Ms Young said. "This sort of work isn't weekday work. It is weekends and evenings and meeting parents in Bluewater or Tesco."

Scott Bagshaw, Kent's head of admissions, admitted more work was needed if disadvantaged parents were to get the advice they needed. "We need to invest in how we are going to capture those particular markets because I don't know that we are."

One reason, he said, is that the council was only told it would receive its pound;68,132 grant to fund the advisers in June, giving it little time for the autumn admissions.

But he believes Kent has been lucky. "I have been very fortunate that people with knowledge of the system were retiring, allowing them to do the job independently," he said. "The Government might find that other authorities have difficulty in finding people prepared to offer impartial sound advice."

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