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Record numbers of parents are challenging decisions by education authorities on which schools their children should...
Record numbers of parents are challenging decisions by education authorities on which schools their children should attend in a 'collective panic' which is wasting school resources, according to new research, reported The Observer (p10).

Figures revealed in a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research show a rise of more than 50% since 1995 in the number of appeals. Authors of the report believe that parents from all socio-economic backgrounds are now taking on the system when children are rejected by first-choice schools. In some areas, says the report, this has led to 'sink schools'. 'There is no doubt that in certain pockets of neighbourhoods parental choice is breeding a collective panic, one that uses up irrational amounts of precious school time and resources', said Joe Hallgarten, who wrote the IPPR report.

Tony Blair is the most high-profile figure to benefit from the parental choice system, introduced in 1988. He sent his sons to the grant-maintained London Oratory School far from their home in Islington, north London. Now tens of thousands of other parents are following his example. More than 85,000 appeals by parents were lodged by parents last year. More are expected this year.

From October, parents will be able to take their case to the high court under European rights legislation claiming that their right to choose the school their child attends has been infringed. 'It is virtually taken for granted that, where possible, parents should be able to choose the school their child attends', said Mr Hallgarten.

Though the effect is 'generally beneficial' it can have a 'significant negative impact' on many schools. Those lower down school league tables suffer from falling intake and thus receive less resources. They are alos legally bound to take children rejected by other schools and so disaffected, difficult children, and those of less ability become concentrated. A vicious circle is set up.

The number of appeals is often highest in areas which have schools at both ends of the league tables and a broad range of backgrounds, such as Enfield LBC. It received the largest number of appeals in England last year, with almost 60% of children who failed to get into the secondary school of their choice registering a formal complaint.

One [unidentified] Welsh LEA was forced to hold mass hearings this year after every one of the 1,000 parents whose children were rejected lodged a formal complaint. In Islington 40% of children go to secondary schools outside the borough, which Mr Hallgarten says has hurt Islington's schools' performances, possibly irrevocably.

When the Conservatives introduced parental choice in 1988 they claimed it would improve the quality of schools and widen the variety of education available. But the report challenges that. 'Oversubscribed schools can choose their children in either overt or subtle ways and even affect the structure of the housing market in their area', said Mr Hallgarten.

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