Conor Ryan: Parents want choice - and they can have it

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The Independent Online

Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Home Secretary, would rather beg than send his child to his local inner-city comprehensive. And the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, has warned that encouraging popular schools to expand could harm struggling schools. Both illustrate the dilemmas of school choice.

And parents are increasingly dissatisfied with the choice available. They generated 95,000 admissions appeals in 2001. Secondary-school appeals have grown by 50 per cent since 1997, with only a quarter resolved in the parents' favour. And while 12 per cent of secondary admissions are appealed nationally, this rises to 28 per cent in Mr Letwin's local London borough of Lambeth. So it's hardly surprising that Labour and the Tories are competing to assuage parents' concerns. The Tories' "passport" would give parents in large cities around £3,500 a year to buy a school place wherever they liked, though not to subsidise a more expensive private-school place. But the plan assumes that a thriving market will meet new demand, and it makes no allowance for the costs of building new schools.

The Government says it wants popular schools to expand, and promises parents greater choice through more specialist schools. In fact, it has improved choice in three ways since 1997. First, through giving taxpayers' money to new faith schools, including the Seventh Day Adventist John Loughborough School in Haringey, and the Muslim Islamia School in Brent. The policy normally involved funding successful independent schools that had been vetted by Ofsted, rather than building from scratch.

Second, it replaced nursery vouchers with local planning partnerships to deliver a big expansion in free nursery education. Parents can choose between sectors, and half of the 510,400 three-year-olds with free part-time places today are in voluntary playgroups, private nurseries or independent schools. And third, when infant class sizes were cut, extra classes were built in popular primary schools that enjoyed a net increase of 12,000 places.

In each case, a planned approach led to greater choice. Mr Bell urged local school-organisation committees to think carefully about how they planned school places. But while he was right to highlight the importance of helping struggling schools recover speedily, this should not mean that popular schools are prevented from expanding, or that failing schools with no hope of recovery are not closed more quickly.

Now, the Government's biggest challenge is to ensure that urban parents can access good secondary schools. They hope to do this by expanding the number and choice of specialist schools. But real choice requires urban comprehensives to attract pupils from beyond their immediate neighbourhood. Some have two catchment areas, one covering their locality and the other a five-mile radius. To preserve an all-ability intake, they allocate places by ability bands, taking as many low- achievers as high-fliers. Were such a system used widely, more choice might be available to parents of all backgrounds. And with better links between groups of schools, the facilities of each could be available to all local pupils, improving their choice of exam subjects.

But there are no easy answers. After Mr Letwin's comments, media attention turned to Lilian Baylis, his nearest comprehensive. In the mid-Eighties, Lilian Baylis was an Inner London Education Authority showcase. But after a change of head teacher the school declined so much that it was failed by Ofsted in 1994. Three years later, it was one of 18 failing schools targeted by Labour. Happily, Ofsted has reported signs of improvement, the school is again popular with parents, and exam results have started to improve, though they remain well below the national average.

Parental popularity won't guarantee continued success. And parents will at least want to see signs that a school is recovering before entrusting their children to it. Otherwise, those that can afford it will go private. But the more surprising truth may be that parents and students could have more choice with sensible planning, rather than by waiting for competition and the market to provide it.

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001