It is chaotic, frequently unjust, and seemingly beyond remedy. The scramble for secondary-school places is reaching the yearly peak of intensity this term, as desirable, oversubscribed schools announce which pupils they are taking, and thousands of unhappy parents besiege them on appeal. In inner urban areas, London particularly, the sharp divisions between high- and low-achieving schools make it a bloody business. In the capital, as ministers themselves put it, "the choice of where you send your child to secondary school is often the most agonising decision parents have to face."
There is, however, about to be a change. It only affects London, and is at the margins even then, but it is an important change all the same, and potentially a symbolic one. The Commissioner for London Schools, Professor Tim Brighouse, is preparing to impose strict new controls on who can go to the city's most prestigious new secondary schools, a significant departure from the principle of "parental choice" and a type of educational engineering that has rarely been used in the past 20 years.
The Commissioner has decided to limit competition for places at the popular city academies by introducing a system of "banding" which would oblige head teachers to take their share of low-performing pupils and so reduce the number of high-flyers they can let in.
The move, understood to have the backing of ministers, is designed to ensure that these new "super-schools" (devised by the Downing Street Policy Unit) do not damage existing schools by sucking in the lion's share of able students and committed parents, leaving the rest to flounder.
Banding was last seen during the days of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) when it was used to ensure that all schools had a fair mix of pupils. Although it is widely recognised that a healthy proportion of supportive families is essential for success, the idea of meddling with parental choice - or, at least, parental preference - has been considered too politically dangerous, except in the very rarest circumstances.
The fact that ministers now seem to countenance a modification shows how seriously they take the difficulties in the capital, where parental dissatisfaction is way higher than the national average and where thousands of children travel an hour or more to find an acceptable school. London's circumstances are unique. Across England nine out of 10 pupils get a place at the secondary school their families have chosen. In London this drops to 70 per cent or less. Divisions of wealth and social status are reflected in a system where middle-class families routinely choose private education and where popular state schools, such as the Catholic Oratory in west London, can attract three applications for every place. Other London schools, meanwhile, face staggering levels of deprivation and low achievement. When the national league tables were last published, 40 of them had such poor GCSE results they are in danger of being closed down by 2006.
The plans for a new admissions system were revealed in an interview with The Independent marking Professor Brighouse's first anniversary as commissioner. He has generated a deal of good publicity in the first 12 months, something badly needed by London schools. But the task facing him remains enormous, thanks in part to what he describes as "the Balkanisation" of London which followed the demise of the ILEA. After the ILEA was abolished, London was broken down into 33 competing fiefdoms which have not always worked in harmony. He is promising a three-year drive to reduce competition between the boroughs and to encourage closer working between them.
Professor Brighouse recently suggested that parents who educate their children privately could be charged higher tuition fees when they go on to university, an idea that has led to calls for his dismissal. Yesterday he was expected to expand on these views at the North of England Conference.
If London's local education authorities need to work together, he says, so do the capital's secondary schools, because the competition to attract the best pupils is damaging the interests of the most vulnerable. The details of the "fair banding" system are still under negotiation, but it would affect the existing academies as well as future ones. The aim is to split pupils into levels of achievement, based on SAT results or extra tests, and then limit the number from each band available to an individual school in proportion to the numbers that apply. (The weakness in this, as Professor Brighouse acknowledges, is that academies might not attract many of the least able pupils to compete for a place.)
Some London comprehensives, such as the Sacred Heart comprehensive school in Hammersmith, attended by the Prime Minister's daughter Kathryn, already have this type of arrangement in place. But banding is still associated with the policies of the ILEA and will be resisted by some middle-class parents who feel it means limiting their choice of school - and their ability to play the system.
The proposal is all the more significant as the city academies are at the forefront of the government's education thinking. They boast an unusual degree of freedom, plus close involvement with the world of business. London already has six academies up and running, and expects to get around 10 more, seven of them in the five worst performing boroughs: Islington, Haringey, Hackney, Lambeth and Southwark. "We're trying to secure fair admissions arrangements that won't disadvantage other schools," said the commissioner. "We're trying to ensure that the academies don't operate on their own but with other schools. Funding arrangements will secure the fair banding, and that they must work with the local schools."
Looking back on his first year, he said there has already been significant progress on admissions, with the London boroughs agreeing a common, computerised admissions system that means, "articulate parents who have been playing the system to get the best deal will no longer be able to play the system." Fundamental problems, however, remain. "The bit that's not being tackled is the admissions criteria. There are more than 200 different admissions criteria with 33 boroughs, churches and lots of individual schools. The result is that the institution's interests are elevated above those of the common good. "This is unfinished business. We need much more of a debate on what the consequences are in big cities of schools having much more autonomy over their admissions arrangements. There are some kids who find it very difficult to get into school in years eight, nine, 10 and 11 because schools have such power. The most disadvantaged kids with the least supportive parents are not in a school at all. I think the present arrangement makes that a bigger problem than it needs to be."
If obtaining school places is the priority for parents, particularly at this time of year, for Professor Brighouse and the schools themselves the priority is recruiting and retaining good staff. London, he says, needs up to 20 per cent more skilled and motivated teachers. And this in turn means tackling salaries and the usurious cost of accommodation in London, factors beyond his control. He can, however, improve the reputation and image of the London teacher and, to a certain extent, the working conditions. He is introducing the Chartered London Teacher qualification, to reward expertise and professionalism. And he is keen to re-establish London-wide academic networks among teachers, allowing subject specialists to stay in touch with the leaders in their field.
He also wants help from the profession at large which, he says, must focus on the inner cities and London in particular. Teaching should take a leaf from the book of acting, medicine and law, and put London - with its multiplicity of challenges and rewards - at the heart of the profession. "London needs to be the place top teachers feel they ought to be if they want to extend their professionalism and be at the pinnacle of their profession. In the same way that people come to London if they are actors, doctors or lawyers. They all know they have to be in London to be acknowledged.
"We need the teaching profession to realise that if you really want its members to be acknowledged as being professional, you have to train them in big cities."
THE METROPOLIS: WILL IT PROVE TOO GREAT A CHALLENGE?
The old year ended with more bad publicity for London. First Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary, said he would rather beg on the streets than send his children to the local south London comprehensive. Then left-wing Labour back-bencher Dianne Abbot astonished fellow MPs and commentators alike by announcing that despite years of vocal commitment to state schools, her own son would in fact be attending one of the country's most exclusive private establishments, in the shape of City of London boys school. She cited the continued failure of inner London boroughs like hers, Hackney, to nurture black boys as a key factor.
Yet Hackney is at the leading edge of what her own ministerial colleagues hope will be a new and rather better future for London's education system. Hackney Downs boys school - the former grammar school (above right) which educated Harold Pinter but was closed by Labour after it fell on hard times - is being resurrected as a city academy, due to open in September 2005. Hackney's education authority is now run by a not-for-profit organisation called the Learning Trust, chaired by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson.
Its results already seem to be on the mend. Based on last summer's GCSEs, Hackney is the fifth most improved borough in the country. Its next task is to increase the proportion of local parents choosing local schools, at present only 60 per cent.
It is not the only part of London to feel the wind of change. 2003 was a year of frenetic activity, including the appointment of a Commisioner for London Schools, Professor Tim Brighouse, and the first ever minister for London schools, Stephen Twigg. Together they launched the London Challenge, a scheme pumping money and advice into the capital's 33 boroughs. There will be at least 10 brand new schools across the five boroughs, seven of which will be academies - independent schools funded by the state.
Hackney, for the moment, is leading the way. Alan Wood, chief executive of the Learning Trust, is full of praise for the London Challenge, which he says has helped change attitudes about boroughs like his saying that in the past people have thought money spent on Hackney is money wasted. But he wishes the initiative were able to offer still more central support. "The idea that a small authority can by itself take on all the challenges is just not believable. It's ridiculous to think that a small London authority can have an effective recruitment campaign, for example.
"The identification of five boroughs in inner London is a good step forward. My own view is that over time the London Challenge should take responsibility for more activities."Reuse content