Over the weekend, readers of The Mail on Sunday were diverted by a gigantic splash headlined "Parents' Fury Over Blairs in School Place Row". The mommies and daddies in question were brassed off because their 11 kids, all of them pupils in a local Catholic Sacred Heart primary school, had failed to get places in the Sacred Heart comprehensive school 500 yards or so away, in Hammersmith, west London. But the Blairs' daughter, Kathryn (based, of course, in Westminster) had been admitted.
Over other issues the parents who allowed themselves to be interviewed by The Mail on Sunday might have used more discretion before sounding off against the admission of one small girl to the Sacred Heart. But this was caveperson stuff. A Mrs Maria Mavrokefalos (which I think is Greek for "big brain") demanded: "What right has Tony Blair to get his daughter into our school?" And a Linda Gray asserted that, "It's simple - the Blairs have taken somebody's place."
Let's deal with rights in a moment. But first there's this issue of stolen places. Now, admittedly arithmetic is not my strong point, but I cannot see how wee Kathryn has managed to keep out all 11 of the rejected Sacred Hearters. There must be at least another 10 carpet-bagging pre-teens, so who are they? For some reason we are not told. Aware, however, that the issue must - mathematically - go beyond the youngest Blair, The Mail on Sunday reaches for the word "embarrassment" (journalese for "no actual sin has been committed, but we want to run the story anyway") and then, more hopefully, for "contradictions in Labour's policy".
And it's true that there is an issue here; but it is by no means a Labour issue. Mr Blunkett's School Standards and Framework Act, which has recently become law, is primarily an attempt to bring some kind of order to an area - schools admissions policies - that has become increasingly chaotic and unsatisfactory. The previous government had become hopelessly entangled in the contradiction between increased selection (which it favoured) and the diametric opposite, parental choice (which it also favoured). Sitting in the middle were Local Education Authorities, obliged somehow to square these circles.
Theoretically what Mr Blunkett has done is to come down on the side of choice over selection. So LEAs are required "to make arrangements enabling the parents of children living in their area to express a preference as to the school at which they wish their child to be educated", and are also, along with school governors, placed under a duty "to comply with any preference [so] expressed", with certain exceptions. So, one up to Mrs Mavrokefalos?
Not really. A further clause "applies the duty to comply with parental preference... by parents living outside the LEA's administrative area". This is in fact pretty sensible. For many people the local school may well be outside their LEA boundaries.
But lying athwart any direct path to unconstrained parental choice are two deep chasms. The first is the desire to prevent ghettoisation (sorry!), by attempting to ration schools' intake of children according to ability. So the Act permits selection only "providing those arrangements are designed to secure that (a) pupils... are representative of the full spread of ability... and (b) that no level of ability is substantially over-represented or under-represented". In addition, specialist schools are permitted to select up to 10 per cent of incoming pupils on the basis of "aptitude" in the specialism, but not according to ability.
The second, and much greater chasm, is the fact that lots of parents choose the same schools, and these schools aren't big enough to accommodate all would-be pupils. Since no one has found a magic way to grow popular schools, or to shrink unpopular ones, there has to be some form of rationing. Mr Blunkett's Act does not really tell us how, or by whom, this feat is to be accomplished.
Let us return to the Sacred Heart. The surge of popularity that has led to an increase in applications over places surely follows a recent Ofsted report that the High School was "very good". Word gets around. Parents in these Woodheadian days know that "very good" for a girls' school means guaranteed qualifications, not many drugs and no pregnancies.
I imagine that West London is suddenly full of lapsed Catholics with 11-year-old daughters, who have just rediscovered their faith. A few years ago, when our family was playing the game of "what school?", I found myself at a local C of E primary telling a headmistress how even a semi-Jewish atheist could have a strong respect for the religious traditions of others, while my partner (once Welsh chapel) tried to recall whether John the Baptist came before or after Christ.
Our problem was that the popular local primaries had unofficial "catchment areas" that took in about 10 houses, and the unpopular ones were, er, unpopular. So we used our wiles to suggest the contribution that we might make to the communal life of the school. We considered moving into one of the 10 houses. Had we been even more unscrupulous we might have joined those who fraudulently rent a postal address very close to the school of choice.
Or we could at that point have taken flight, as so many friends did, to the private sector. This is Mrs Mavrokefalos again, on Tony Blair: "He can afford to go to private school." And she went on: "He's even taken away my daughter's right to an assisted place." Yes, well. That sounds a bit like an assisted quote to me. And there never was such a thing as a "right to an assisted place".
There is no big, happy solution here. While some schools are seen to be better than others, parents will be in competition for places. As information about school performance is disseminated, this competition is likely to become more intense, not less. And those with money, eloquence or really convincing social problems will use their assets to achieve the best results for their children.
There is, therefore, only one substantial strategy for alleviating that parental angst, and protecting us all from sporadic outbreaks of Mavrokefalitis. It's to make all schools better. So that when little Zoe, Chloe, Seth and Josh fail to get into St Wonderful's, they still have Prettygood High to fall back on.Reuse content