The fallacy of parental choice

I did no research into schools for my son when I moved; I just found the nearest state primary
DO YOU remember Communitarianism? If you do, your memory is too long to please New Labour. Communitarianism was one of Tony Blair's early buzz-words, while the creator of this clumsily titled theory of social behaviour, Amitai Etzioni, was one of his early advisors. The American academic helped Blair out with the rewording of Clause Four, and is credited with influencing the adoption of the highly Communitarian phrase "responsibility for all, responsibility from all".

At the end of 1997, Etzioni publicly criticised New Labour for cutting lone parent benefits, and Blair has not been heard uttering the word since. It has been dumped from the New Labour theoretical playlist. Oddly though, the party continues to pay lip-service to the theories behind the unmentionable word, for communitarianism suggests that the core unit of identifiable communities is the family, which looks to other communities across shared institutions.

Now, while we are told endlessly of New Labour's utter commitment to the family, rhetoric which was backed up in Gordon Brown's last budget, we rather run aground when this basic building block for a coherent society starts looking for shared institutions where it can hang out with other building blocks - well, unless there's a social exclusion unit in your area, that is.

And here's the rub. In today's secular society, the key shared institution within a community has got to be the local school. And that, of course, is where Blair's love affair with communitarianism ends. For the local school is an institution to which Blair, too many of his colleagues, and too many of his voters, are not willing to subscribe.

The latest so-called embarrassment to New Labour, the revelation that Jeremy Corbyn's oldest son in not attending a local comprehensive in his father's Islington North constituency, but instead a top grammar local in the educationally outstanding borough of Barnet, is actually less of an embarrassment than it might be.

True, it doesn't say much for the recently launched Excellence in Cities initiative that women like Claudia Corbyn, the boy's mother, aren't persuaded that inner-city comprehensives will be boosted by the expedient of busing exceptional pupils such as her own off to places such as Barnet for extra lessons at the end of the school day when he's tired or on a Saturday morning when he might instead be spending time with his estranged father.

But on the other hand, here we have an old Labour thorn in the Third Way's side whose skills as a persuasive political and inspirational social reformer are so limited that they cannot sway his wife and child. Corbyn is himself saved from some embarrassment by letting it be thought that he himself is so much against grammar schools that he is willing to sacrifice his marriage for his "principles".

His wife, Chilean exile Claudia Corbyn, is also sticking to hers, for she is willing to sacrifice her marriage and her husband's career for her son's education. If you believe the spin, that is. It makes more sense to assume that the Corbyns' disagreement over their children's education was just one of many fundamental differences between them which led to their separation two years ago.

After all, education for a committed socialist such as Mr Corbyn is not just about education and can never be treated as a single issue. Even looking at the situation at the most simple level, it makes no sense at all. Can Claudia Corbyn really believe that her son's schooling is more important than his home environment and his relationship with his father? If she does, and that's what she appears to be saying, then she's a fool. If the Communitarians got one thing right, then it's the central importance of both the family and school to wider social cohesion. School shouldn't only be about academic success. It should be about helping to build the world around you, the one that you want your children to live in.

When I became pregnant I moved into a larger house in inner- city Lambeth, a borough which, like Islington, has more than its share of failing schools. But I wanted to live in a mixed community, with all classes and cultures represented, and I wanted my son to grow up understanding that mixed culture and gaining insight into the lives of as many different kinds of people as possible.

Some would consider this irresponsible, but I did no research into local schools before I moved, and simply wandered about the area afterwards and located the nearest state primary. This, no matter what, was the school my son would attend. I didn't think the educational standard of the school was of the highest importance, and thought that his possible unhappiness at the school was an issue I could tackle if and when it came.

What was of strong concern to me was that my son should be able to get to the school on his own two feet as soon as possible, that he should be able to make friends locally whom he could also visit under his own steam, and that the school should be handy for me so that I could get to know the local parents and children and that together we could keep track of what our children were up to. Very Communitarian.

However, I couldn't resist peeking when the latest league tables were published earlier in the year. I was astounded to discover that the school in question came third in Lambeth, just two places behind Brixton's Sudbourne Road Primary, which is lauded as one of the best state primaries in London. A further scan, this time at the main feeder primary for Kathryn Blair's secondary, confirmed that the results at the two schools were similar.

It was then that I realised that this possible good fortune might instead work against me. For while Kathryn Blair had got into the school her parents had chosen for her, many parents who lived in the school's official catchment area - not six miles away like the Blairs - had been angered that their children had been denied a place. These children had attended the feeder primary and already made friends there who would be attending Sacred Heart. They now would have to attend schools further afield, perhaps passing Kathryn as she travelled the opposite way. These parents were furious, and with good reason. I'll be furious too if my boy has to go to a school outside his local community because the local school is too successful for the local people's good.

Furthermore, I'd prefer my child not to enter the school environment until he is five. I'd prefer him to attend a playgroup first and then move to a more institutional environment later. But like many primaries that are offered extra cash to provide nursery places, priority will be given to those children who start attending the school at three. Where is the parental choice here?

The Conservative introduction of parental choice was, far from being a way of making our state education system better and fairer, an admission of the most ghastly failure. If all schools were pretty good, there would not be much need for it. Instead, some schools - many of them in Corbyn's constituency, many in mine - are so bad that in theory all parents are given the option of sending their children elsewhere.

In practice, of course, some children have to go to the failing schools, and those children's parents are likely to be the ones who are least able to support their child's education or effect change in their community through involvement with the school, and so the downward cycle continues not just for the school but for the entire community.

Parental choice is in practice selection. It ghettoises communities as the middle classes buy their way into the areas around good schools and the working classes are pushed out. It fosters the "bedroom culture" among children that New Labour is supposed to be worried about by encouraging children to attend schools far from their homes so that they don't build around them a local community of school pals. It encourages them to be sedentary and lacking in street sense, as they need to be driven to school. This also blocks roads and increases pollution, another pair of problems that in another part of the forest New Labour is tackling ferociously.

While it would be impossible at this time to remove all aspects of parental choice, it should be limited. Certainly pupils within the official catchment area should not be turned away while others, far from the local community, are welcomed. But New Labour's commitment to parental choice in schooling remains paramount, despite the increasingly obvious fact that this system creates all kinds of other social problems without actually delivering what it purports to. It isn't parents who ultimately get to do the choosing when it comes to state education. Instead it is the schools. And the funding system is such that the schools aren't choosing for the right reasons at all.