Analysis: Why attempts to improve parental choice fail

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The Independent Online

The plain truth is that virtually every measure put forward by politicians to improve parental choice has been counter-productive.

The plain truth is that virtually every measure put forward by politicians to improve parental choice has been counter-productive.

Take the seductive plan favoured by both Labour and the Conservatives to allow popular schools to expand and take in all those parents who want their children to attend them.

The answer is that hardly any of the seriously oversubscribed schools want to go down that route - believing that their current size contributes to the ethos of the school and they will lose their popularity if they become too big.

Allowing parents to apply to the school of their choice just means more will put themselves down for the more popular schools in their areas. This, in turn, leads to more disappointed parents and more chance the school will choose the pupil (or parent) rather than the parent the school.

Labour's attempt to provide more choice and diversity within the state system - by operating a network of specialist secondary schools and privately sponsored academies - also backfires on parental choice. Because of the vastly superior amounts of money spent on the new academies (£25m per school as opposed to the average of £14m on a new school), parents are seeking places at them in their droves. The newly set up Lambeth Academy had to turn away 700 parents last year.

Even the Conservatives' voucher/passport scheme - giving parents the equivalent of the cost of state education to buy a place at any state or private school charging that amount or less - runs into the same problem as the move to allow popular schools to expand. The most popular schools do not want to.

So what is to be done? Firstly, given it would be a political impossibility to bring up the drawbridge and go back to rigidly controlled catchment areas for every school, we need a little more honesty in debate.

Parents should be told that - even if they have the right to apply to any school of their choice - there is no guarantee that their child will get a place.

In the long run, though, there is no substitute for concentrating efforts on trying to ensure all secondary schools offer a decent standard. It may be an impossible dream or it may take a long time to achieve, but to lose sight of it as a goal would mean sentencing hordes of parents to a second-class state education for their children.

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