By Angela Harrison and Melissa Jackson
BBC News education staff
A system designed to make the allocation of school places fairer has left hundreds of children without an offer and others with several.
A third of children at one Lambeth school have no offer
Head teachers at some popular London schools say they have been deluged with calls from parents begging for a place for their children.
Across England, nine out of 10 councils met Tuesday's deadline to offer secondary places to children.
But computer problems meant many pupils got multiple offers or none at all.
London and some of the surrounding areas are worst affected.
Kensington and Chelsea says 180 families - a record number - have not been allocated places for their children.
"It is not clear at this time how the government's scheme has gone wrong," said cabinet member for education, Councillor Mary Weale.
"But last year we had 80 or 90 families without a place at this stage and that in itself was difficult enough to sort out in time for the beginning of the academic year. Now we have double the number."
In Croydon, 370 children have not been allocated a place, while 400 have got offers from two schools.
In Lambeth, 561 children have not yet received an offer. At Sudbourne Primary School in Brixton, a third of this year's school-leavers have not had an offer.
Parent Patricia Winifred and her daughter Maya are devastated: "We were given a choice of six schools and were assured that we would get one of the six schools.
"We chose six very good schools. I thought my daughter would have one of six good schools and here we are, she has nothing."
Lambeth says it is working with neighbouring boroughs to make sure all children get an offer.
A spokesperson said: "We sympathise with parents who are upset and frustrated when they do not receive the school place they wished for and will offer extra support and guidance to all parents and do everything we can to ensure every child gets an offer."
This year was the first year that councils across England were due to co-ordinate secondary school admissions so that offers could go out on the same day - 1 March.
They were meant to liaise with each other via computer so that every child received one offer of a place, not several.
In the past, the tendency for some families to hang on to an offer from one or more schools until they had heard from all those they had applied to would result in other children not being allocated a place until weeks or months later.
Joan Olivier, head teacher of the popular Lady Margaret School in Fulham, says the new system has made things worse than before.
"It's an absolute nightmare, which could take months to sort out," she said.
"It's worse than it was before"
"Probably these children will have a place somewhere in September, but try telling that to a child of 10 who is sobbing."
The problems in London and some out-lying boroughs are being blamed on computer problems.
Under the scheme for this area, the 33 London boroughs plus seven councils around London were to pool information on a pan-London register.
The councils were using a total of four different software systems to compile their admissions information and share it with the register.
The people behind the register - the Pan-London Coordinated Admissions Executive Board - and those supplying its software - a company called Arete - blame the firm Capita for computer problems in some boroughs.
Arete's managing director Tony Brown said: "The reason this system hasn't worked is that Capita's software didn't do what it was supposed to do.
"Of the 13 boroughs supplied by Capita software, eight didn't exchange information with the pan-London register - five of them did.
"If people don't join in, there's a bit of a black hole."
Capita said: "All providers in the run-up to the distribution of admissions letters this year have experienced problems with the quality of data and difficulties due to disparate software systems attempting to communicate with the hub and each other.
"Of the London LEAs we support, a significant number have successfully exchanged data within the project. We have helped those remaining LEAs who have ongoing difficulties to use alternative methods for distributing admissions letters on time."
The government believes that although there are problems at the moment, the situation is not as bad as in previous years.
A spokesperson said: "In urban areas, additional pressures mean that some unplaced children will receive an offer shortly afterwards. This is far preferable to what has happened in previous years where children sometimes had to wait until September for a place."
We asked for your comments. Here is a selection from the many responses:
My daughter was unsuccessful in all her secondary school applications and was subsequently placed in a school which I did not want to even consider in the first place as one our preferences for schools were for single sex (girls) and the school now placed at is a co-ed. No-one at council is forthcoming with any information/advice/guidance. Unfortunately I am not able to send her to an independent school unlike all her class mates.
Bridgette Johnson, London, England
I am still awaiting a letter of confirmation from Surrey admissions department, although I have been told my local school and 1st choice has been rejected. On basic maths, for Reigate and Banstead schools they have had 1,526 applications and 1,268 places available - why ?
Angie Griffin, Redhill, Surrey
I was told to give up to five preferences for my daughter. My first choice is classed as 200m further away than my nearest school. I was not offered any of the five choices that I made, and in fact my daughter has been allocated a [place] at a vastly undersubscribed school which is approximately five miles away from where we live. ... In our school alone there are 11 families out of 57 that have been allocated schools out of area, that's nearly 20%, and god knows how many that were not allocated a school of their choice. We have found that if you swap some of the allocations around most of the parents would be happy, some have been offered school number 1 but wanted school number 2 and vice versa, just swap! How easy is that?
Karen Clark, Leeds
I like many other parents have no secondary school place for my son. We live in Haringey and are two and a half miles from any school, our chances of a successful application for a place at any school were very slim. However, having failed on our six preferred schools I find it astonishing that we were offered a place at a school whose admissions policy specifically stated that you had to be a practising Christian which I am not.
Mr T Clarke, London
My son has not been given a place at any school. When ringing Lambeth Education, the only help is a list of schools in other boroughs, which is no help at all.
Jonathan Doyle, Lambeth, London
Only a few months ago we were told by the main political parties that parents should have a choice in secondary school education. I don't want a choice I just want a good local school. The strain on the system is from poor performing schools. I understand and sympathise with the head teachers, teachers and pupils at these schools who are striving to make changes. However as a parent should I place my son at schools where on the day I visited I felt intimated by the atmosphere and environment, and if I felt intimated how would my son feel? This so called fair system has sent my son off to school crying this week because he feels unwanted and rejected by the local schools.
Andrew McGuire, Lewisham, London
My daughter is very upset and I am both upset, incensed and angry that the education authorities could lie about parental choice and completely mess up the whole system. I could go on for pages - but I am compiling a file of evidence, quotes and references from admission officers at school and education departments and I am determined that the education authorities be held accountable in court for this appalling treatment of our children's future.
Julie Stamford, Worcester Park, Surrey
The council informed me that I would not know the outcome until the end of March. In the meantime all my son's friends have a place. It is a very worrying time and a totally unfair system. My son's school report is excellent he is a bright, able and enthusiastic student. I have made sure he knows this is no fault of his, who knows what negative effect such unnecessary rejection could have on his personal development.
Yvonne mills, Kensington and Chelsea
Oversubscription in some Cheltenham schools has hit record levels this year. Why? The LEA remain unclear even today about what catchment areas exist for residents on the Cheltenham Borough / Gloucestershire County boundary. This is forcing parents to accept offers at schools 60 minutes away!
Barry Walker, Cheltenham, England
It is very distressing to hear that so many children have not been offered a school place. My daughter was very fortunate. We live in the London Borough of Barnet but applied for a place at Fortismere School in Haringey which is five minutes' walk away. We received the confirmation letter that the application had been successful on 2 March. It seems that it is a lottery as to which London borough you happen to live in and how efficient they have been with allocating places.
Deborah Packenham, London
I am unsure regarding other parts of the country but in Lancashire we received offers of places on Thursday 3 March. Our son and most of the children in his class have been accepted for their first choice of school. I cannot imagine the stress and pressure on parents and children who have to start the appeal process and find the present system unacceptable.
L. Hopkinson, Preston Lancashire
I think this situation is appalling, especially considering the fact that education at that age is compulsory. In the States, state-run schools are zoned. If you live in a certain area, you know which school you will attend through age 18. You just go. If you live too far away to walk, you ride a school bus. Free. You can petition to go to a Magnet school for a special subject, and often have to arrange your own transportation. As long as it is a state-run school (what we call public), it's free. Waiting to hear about gaining a place is only for those who are applying to private schools. Those who do not hear back from the private schools know they can always go to the local public school. Sure, we deal with over-crowding, but no 10-year-old is ever left thinking they have no where to go to school the following year.
Jessica, United States
You could always home educate. Having been home educated from the age of 12 my daughter, age 17, is now at college studying for three A-levels.
Jo Borthen, Exeter
We are in the distressing situation where my 10 year old son has had three rejections without receiving an offer of a place. I am intrigued as to what school he will be offered as there are none left within reasonable travelling distance. Back in October 2003 I was at a meeting about the new admissions procedures and the question was asked from the floor 'What back up plans do you have if the new system does not work?' The answer was 'We have been assured it will work.' The question was asked again and the same answer given. I feel extremely let down by this system.
Heidi Woodham, Banstead, Surrey
I am both disgusted and upset, we spent weeks visiting schools so we could find six schools to place on our daughters application form. Our daughter has had no offers at all. We have been told by our LEA that they do not have a place for our daughter anywhere in the borough, let alone an offer of one of our preferences. My daughter has been in tears and asking "why don't any of these schools want me, what's wrong with me?" I must say that the head teacher at our primary school has been very good in reassuring our daughter that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her and that the whole system has been a disaster.
Maria Cheveau, Ealing, London
I am head teacher of William Farr C of E School, an oversubscribed comprehensive of 1,450 pupils. Because parents have not been able to get their children into the school two major problems arise. I am now faced with a considerable number of appeals which will take up considerable time. In addition under the present guidelines all these appeals (probably over 50) will have to be heard before any result can be given to parents and children. The new rules make it impossible for appeals to begin before mid May and will probably take nearly a month to hear. ...
Although the old system was flawed it was better than this new farce, which is causing chaos and more importantly untold and unnecessary stress to many thousands of very young children who cannot understand why they cannot go to school with their friends. In many previous conversations with politicians and civil servants at the DfES they we constantly told that the chaos we now have would result. It gives me no pleasure to say "I told you so".
Paul Strong, Lincoln, Lincolnshire.
Much of the trouble is a result of the government forcing parents to select the schools before knowing the results of grammar school entrance exams - simply because if political dogma. Here in Calderdale, Yorkshire, it is even worse, because the admissions scheme the council runs means that you effectively have to gamble on not getting a place at any half-decent school if you want to choose any but "the local school".
Iain Harrison, Halifax
We were not able to get our daughter into our first choice of primary school (a three-minute walk from our house), or our first choice of middle school. After she couldn't get into our first TWO choices of secondary school, we finally gave up and sent her to a private school. We will be paying for this for a very long time, but it was worth it.
I live in the London Borough of Ealing. I think the new system is great, much better than the old one. There are definitely more happy parents around this year than in previous years, and things have been much less painful for the majority. The wait in Ealing in the past went on for literally months while some schools sent out offers in Jan and still others in March/ April. This system is much better.
Pauline Raskino, Ealing