Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 00:11 UK

More parents pay for appeals help

By Katharine Carpenter
BBC News

Grandfather Ron Burrows: 'Without the help and advice we would have failed'

A growing number of parents in England and Wales are paying for legal advice to get children into their preferred state school, the BBC has learned.

Nearly all the legal firms contacted by the BBC said they had been inundated with requests for admissions appeal advice in recent months.

They reported families paying up to £2,000 to get help with an appeal.

Charities said it was another example of more affluent parents gaining an unfair advantage over poorer families.

'Improved chances'

Matt Richards, of the School Appeals Services, advises families on the process and, in some cases, represents them before the appeal panel.

He said he has worked on appeals for about 250 families this year, which was a "significant increase in business".

He put the rise down to parents who could no longer afford private education but were prepared to pay for advice which might improve the chances of getting their children into the preferred state school.

However, Councillor Les Lawrence, of the Local Government Association, questioned the benefit of these services.

One cannot put a price on a child's educational future
Ron Burrows, grandparent

"With all due respect to the legal profession, there is nothing additional that they bring to the process," he said.

"And I just think that without being perhaps too provocative, there may be one or two within the legal profession that see this as an additional way of earning some extra money in a difficult financial climate."

An initial meeting with a private firm to discuss an appeal can cost more than £80.

Beyond that, some consultants and legal firms charge a flat fee of about £400 to guide families through making representations at an appeal.

Employing a solicitor throughout the entire process, including appearing before the panel, can cost as much as £2,000.

Kate Green, of Child Poverty Action Group, said it would ultimately mean better schools and better academic results for the well-off.

"Here's one more cost that will exclude some low-income families and advantage better-off families," she said.

'Horror stories'

Ron Burrows was among the growing number to decide help was needed to get his grandson into the right school.

"One cannot put a price on a child's educational future," he said.

"And both my wife and myself had heard so many horror stories as to what actually goes on at these appeals ...and if by spending money your chances are greater, you do it without thinking."

The appeal was successful and his grandson, Toby Andrew, was given a place at the school he wanted to attend.

Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said that the purpose of admissions appeals was to settle disputes over how application procedures had been followed - rather than being a "back-door" route to a place.

"Admissions appeals are not a shortcut to getting a place in the school of your choice. They exist to make sure that schools have followed the right procedures, and that schools do not privilege particular groups of children, or attempt selection by the back-door.

"It is right that parents can appeal to an independent panel. The decision is down to parents whether they do use lawyers, but we agree with the Local Government Association that there is no need for them to do so, and legal firms who suggest there is are misleading parents."

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