It's a shock when you get the letter saying your child hasn't been offered a place at the secondary school you set your heart on. On National Offer Day it's estimated that around one in six applicants won't be offered their first choice.
Sam Murray from the charity ACE (the Advisory Centre for Education) suggests that your first step is to put your child's name down on your first-choice school's waiting list. 'It's difficult to stay calm,' she says, 'but for some schools, there may be a lot of mobility on the waiting list.'
Consider carefully whether the school place you've been offered really wouldn't work for your child. Talk to other parents and find out where your child's friends are likely to go. Think about options you haven't even considered - whether, for example, there are places at a school you didn't apply for.
But what if, after all this, you still feel you want to appeal? (You can appeal even if you accept a place at another school - and ACE advises you to think carefully before turning a place down. Having a place at another school doesn't lessen your chances of winning the appeal at the school you prefer.)
Your first step is to lodge your intention to appeal with the Admission Authority for that particular school. For community schools, this will be the Local Authority. For Foundation and Trust schools, CTCs and Academies, you will have to write to the school's governing body.
Details of how to appeal should be included with the letter you received with the bad news, and sometimes an appeal form is automatically included. There is usually a deadline included in the letter, and it's important to meet that date. You don't lose your right to appeal if you miss the deadline, but you make the job harder as earlier appeals may already have been successful - meaning that the school may be even less likely to be able to offer your child a place.
At this initial stage, you don't have to have everything fully prepared. Outline as many reasons as possible why you think your child should have a place at this particular school - it's your local community school, for example, or it has a specialism that's really important to your child. But don't worry if you haven't marshalled all the arguments at this point.
Local authorities will try to arrange it so that the Appeals Panel can hear all the appeals for a particular school at the same time, and this could take place at any time between now and July 6. So you could be in for a long wait.
This is particularly hard if you're trying to reassure an anxious child, but the delay gives you time to work out exactly what you want to say on the day.
The Admission Authority must give you at least ten days' notice of the appeal, and the clerk of the Appeals Panel will send you all the papers at least seven working days beforehand. These papers will include the school's reasons for not admitting an extra child.
It's important to remember that the Appeals Panel is completely independent of the school and the local authority. It's made up of three to five volunteers. There are strict legal rules about who can be on the panel, and there must be at least one lay person (someone without experience in the management of education) and one person with more specialist knowledge (someone with experience of education, or the parent of a child at the school). Also present on the day will be someone representing the Admission Authority - who will present their case to the panel before you do - and possibly the headteacher of the school where you'd like your child to go.
Unless your first-choice school is selective and your child hasn't been offered a place because he or she hasn't reached the required entry level, the school's reason for not offering your child a place is probably that they are full.
So once the panel has checked whether a mistake was made in applying the admission arrangements (which themselves have to comply with the law), their next job is to work out if the school could take on an extra pupil.
This is the tricky bit. The panel has to balance what the school needs against what your child needs. As the ACE website says, it's about 'whether the problems faced by your child if they do not go to the school outweigh the problems the school will face if they have to take an extra child. If your case outweighs the school's case you will win the appeal and your child will be given a place at the school.'
This all sounds quite simple. But because the panel is weighing up two opposing points of view, your case has to be very strong. Basically, this is not the time for emotion. Your job is to come up with facts and figures and support them with evidence.
You need to show that you've done your homework and you haven't taken the decision to appeal lightly. Look at the reasons why the school hasn't offered a place. You may disagree, for example, that it doesn't have room for another child, especially if it has taken on extra children in previous years.
Then move on to your child's needs. You have to think of all the reasons why the school where you've been offered a place isn't right for your child (it would take two hours to get there in the morning, for example - and bring the bus timetables to prove it).
On top of this, you have to give positive reasons why your first-choice school will hugely benefit your child (he's dyslexic, perhaps, and this is the only school in the area with a specialist facility - and bring in a letter from your current school's educational psychologist to support this).
If all this sounds daunting, remember that you're not expected to be an expert in education. Your job is to come up with all the clear and compelling reasons why your child would thrive far more successfully at one school than another. If you need help with this, download ACE's excellent step-by-step guide.
An appeal is hard to win - only about a third of parents are successful. So should you pay for expert or legal advice? (The barrister Ian Jones offers a package costing £1,000, for example, on www.school-appeal.org.uk, and Matt Richards at www.schoolappeals.com says you need expert help because the appeals process is not a level playing field - you're arguing against a school or local authority with years of experience behind them.) This is another tough decision. But for most people paying isn't an option.
You can, however, study as much free online advice as you can. The ACE website (see above) should answer all your questions.
If you manage the process yourself - and it is, after all, supposed to be set up so that parents can do this - you can still take along a friend or colleague for moral support. As Sam Murray of ACE says, 'We say to parents, it's a legal process, but not a court of law. What's important is to plan and prepare carefully, and to support whatever you say with hard evidence. What you're trying to put across is why your child should be at this school and no other school - and as the parent, you know your child best.'
For more information:
ACE Centre for Education (www.ace-ed.org.uk, 0808 800 5793)
The Children's Legal Centre (www.childrenslegalcentre.com, 0845 345 4345).