Page last updated at 09:05 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Q&A: Admissions Day angst

school sign
The road to secondary school is not always easy
Hundreds of thousands of children in England are finding out which secondary school they will be going to in September.

For some parents and children there will be few surprises. They will get a place at a local school they like after a simple application process.

But for others, the past few weeks and months will have been a nail-biting journey involving finding their way through a maze of varying criteria for numerous schools, filling in various additional forms or pushing their children through tests for selective schools - or even being subjected to a random ballot for places.

Last year one in five children was not given a place at the school that was first on their list of preferences. The picture varies greatly around the country and in some areas, only half of families were given their first choice.

What can we do if we do not get our favourite school?

You can accept the place offered but ask to be put on a waiting list for the school you most want. Not everyone will take up their places and you may be offered one. Be prepared to wait though. Some shuffling of places goes on right up to and even after the start of the autumn term.

How are the waiting lists managed?

It is up to admissions authorities if they want to keep waiting lists for over-subscribed schools. If they do, places are not given on the basis of "first come first served". Children on a waiting list have to be ranked according to the school's oversubscription criteria, with any place going to the child at the top.

What about appealing?

You can lodge an appeal against the decision to refuse you a place and if you win, the school will be forced to admit your child.

In an appeal, your individual case will be looked at by an independent panel. This will consider whether the admissions authority (usually the council, the governing body of the school itself, or in the case of some faith schools, the diocese) has applied its admissions rules properly and treated you fairly.

It is also an opportunity for you to explain why it would be better for your child to attend that school rather than another.

What does an appeal involve?

First you have to fill out a form stating your reasons for appealing. You need to put in your best arguments about why your child should have been given a place. It's not about saying that you don't like the school you have been allocated.

Many councils or schools send out details of how to appeal with their Admission Day letters.

The process itself is formal, involving set forms and time frames. An appeal has to be made within a certain number of weeks.

There are then formal hearings in front of an independent panel, which must take place before early July. Parents can attend these in person to make their case or can have them heard in their absence, using the written evidence they provide.

Who sits on these panels?

They are made of between three and five people who are volunteers from the public and have had relevant training. They should not include anyone from the governing body of the school you are appealing about, staff at the local authority or anyone else who may not be neutral.

A representative from the admissions authority will put their side of the story and you will be given the chance to question them. You will put your arguments to the panel.

What about hiring lawyers for appeals?

Law firms and other advisers specialising in this area report an increasing number of parents turning to them for help in the process.

They can assist parents in filling out their forms and look at why their child was refused a place at their favourite school, to build a case for appeal.

They can also attend hearings with the parents to make their case.

Solicitor Rishi Mital, of Match Solicitors, says some parents are scared of the process.

"There has definitely been a big increase in parents coming to us for advice in preparing for an appeal or to represent them.

"It's not an easy system. Parents don't always feel able to tackle it alone. A lot of parents feel quite daunted and nervous about the hearing itself.

"Some panels are openly hostile to parents. They might be dealing with 30 or 40 cases in a day."

What are the fees like?

A non-scientific look at various websites suggests average fees for consultation and help in drawing up a case for appeal are about 300. Representation by a lawyer at a hearing will cost several hundred pounds and might bring the total to about 800, depending on the complexity of the case.

Where can I go for some free advice?

The Advisory Centre for Education (Ace).

What are my chances of success in appealing?

That depends on your circumstances. The crucial point is whether the people allocating the places followed their own admissions criteria and you were treated fairly.

In 2006/7, the families of about 6% of the intake appealed. Of those cases which went on to be heard by an appeals panel, parents won in just over a third of cases.

Sometimes, an admissions authority quickly discovers it has made a mistake and parents will not need to pursue an appeal. In such cases, the child will immediately be given a place at the school.

What happens if I win?

The school will then have to take your child. In making its decision, the appeal panel will have had to weigh up the likely impact on a school in terms of resources of admitting another pupil.

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