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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Parents angry over school places
By Sean Coughlan
"I can't put into words the look of failure on her face," said a mother describing her daughter's disappointment at being rejected from another secondary school.
Speaking in a packed school hall in New Cross, south London, a succession of parents spoke of their children's tears, stress and confusion in the scramble for school places.
And there were warnings that the capital faces a school places crisis this autumn - with hundreds of families still not knowing where their children will be attending school after the summer holidays.
There were also deeply-felt accounts of how the applications system for state secondary schools can become fraught with anxiety and disappointment for many families.
"How can it be right for so much stress to be put on the shoulders of a 10 year old?" a parent demanded.
The meeting had been called by a parents' campaign group which says that parents are "angry and desperate" about the lack of places for their children.
This includes parents who have only been offered places in schools which are seen as unsuccessful and unpopular - places which they are refusing to accept.
The campaign group, New School for New Cross, wants the London Borough of Lewisham to open a new school to tackle what they claim is a serious shortfall in available places.
But the meeting highlighted the strong emotions and a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the wider question of how pupils are allocated places in the transfer from primary to secondary school.
Parents' meetings can be sleepy affairs, with plenty of foot-shuffling and an early race for the exit. But this was alive with anxiety and raw feelings.
"There is a rising tide of discontent among parents - and politicians are out of step with what parents are saying," said Eileen Logan, from the neighbouring borough of Lambeth.
"Children would be just as well off taking the 11-plus, after all the tests and interviews they have to undergo to find a place," she said.
The campaign in Lewisham is led by local general practitioner, Louise Irvine, who says that parents are angered by a system that seems arbitrary and gives them few real choices.
"Parents say it is a horrible ordeal - with a round of prospectuses, tests and interviews, in their own borough and other boroughs, and still the sense that there is very little choice," she says.
"And if children say they really like a school they visit, then parents begin to worry that they won't be able to get a place there, even if it's on their own doorstep.
"There are parents who say their children have cried for four hours solidly when they are rejected. And what makes it even more confusing for children is that there seems no clear reason why places are offered or not."
And she says that the application system can drag out for a whole year and still not produce an acceptable result.
'Daunted and frustrated'
The first round of applications are made in the autumn, followed in the spring by a second round of applications for remaining vacancies - and then the appeals are not finished until the summer term.
This means that those who lose appeals can still be at the starting line, looking for a school place, with only a few weeks left before term begins.
Then they fear that they will be forced to take the places that they have been avoiding - either in the lowest-achieving schools or miles away from where they live.
At the meeting in New Cross, a parent spoke of a child who had to leave home at 7.15am and take two buses and a train to reach the school place they had been given.
And if the child is late, there is detention, even though the return journey plus homework means that the school day does not end until 10.30pm at night.
Louise Irvine says that parents being asked to accept the unacceptable - and if they refuse are then forced to hunt in other boroughs or outside London for suitable places.
Or else, she says that parents with little spare money are considering borrowing and scrimping and saving for private schools.
The campaigners in Lewisham want to provide another alternative by building a comprehensive school that follows the example of the Charter School in Southwark, set up after a similar campaign by parents.
The deputy head of the Charter School, who addressed the meeting, said that there were now 900 applications for 100 places at the school, reflecting the popularity of the new school with parents.
There was also concern from local teaching staff, with a local primary head reporting that she had parents crying in her office, "daunted and frustrated" by a system which meant they were "unable to find a place in a school right on their doorstep".
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