Education Quandary

'My son hasn't been offered a place at any secondary school that we would like him to go to. Getting a place in a good school is becoming a nightmare in London, and yet the politicians say nothing. Why isn't it an election issue?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

You're right. This is a nightmare for thousands of families - about 70,000 at the last count - and not only where you are. This year, areas such as Surrey and Shropshire have also had problems.

In London, a new centralised admissions system was introduced in an attempt to make things better, but it hasn't worked and more than 3,000 children are still without places, causing them and their parents great distress.

It is a scandal that such a normal step on the road to growing up should be the cause of such upset. However, you are wrong to say that the politicians are saying nothing. All of the main parties offer solutions, however implausible they may sound. Labour wants popular schools to expand; the Tories want to fund extra school places and give low-charging private schools state funding; the Lib Dems want more local co-ordination of admissions.

But none of these address the central issue, which is that as soon as you have school choice, the inequalities between schools get bigger. School A, with its better intake, gets better results than School B. So all the parents in the area stampede towards School A, allowing it to take its pick of pupils, and thus improve its results still further. Or, if such selection isn't allowed, the school will find motivated families moving into the streets around it, in order to secure their children places. One way or another, it will attract more high-achieving pupils, and get better exam results, thereby consolidating its reputation as the school in the area. Meanwhile, poor old School B is left doing the best it can with those pupils whose parents don't care where their children go to school, or don't have either the money or savvy to work the system.

In cities, particularly, where secondary schools are very close together, the gradations between different schools are calibrated by parents as carefully as racing form. Of course, everyone wants their child to get into the best school; of course, this is never going to happen.

This is the real reason why politicians don't like to talk too much about it. They know - or, at least, they ought to know - that none of their so-called solutions are going to solve the problem.

But choice is something that we are now starting to think twice about. What if it doesn't deliver the happiness that we once thought it promised? What if, God forbid, it actually makes things worse?

Fashion pundits tell us that style bibles are flying off bookshop shelves because trawling the overstuffed high-street stores is giving us "choice fatigue" and we need someone to tell us what to wear. Organic farmers say the same thing: weekly fruit- and-vegetable boxes are booming because people like being given a cabbage and told to get on with it, rather than having to dither in the supermarket before a dozen varieties of prepacked salad.

Schools, of course, are a much more loaded issue. But that doesn't alter the fact that the best school system will never be the one that offers the most choice, but the one that makes sure that a good local secondary school is available to every child. And if that means concentrating more on improving the quality of teaching and learning in the schools we've got, rather than endlessly fiddling with the structures of them in a doomed attempt to make all parents winners in a system that will always have losers, then that is what we should do.

Readers' advice

Your readers should know that ethnic-minority children suffer even more than others in the transfer to secondary school. Research done in London by South Bank University has shown that they lose out when they go up, and slip back in their achievements, when these are measured in tests that they take at 14, compared with how they did at 11.

Parents interviewed by the university said that they felt that the system was loaded against black and Muslim boys, and single parents said that they felt that they weren't given good information by their children's primary schools about school choices and how to apply for a place.

Getting into a good secondary school is getting harder, and it is the most vulnerable children who are missing out.
Anita Shankar, London E3

My daughter got a place at the school to which she most wanted to go, but several of her friends didn't and it was dreadful to see how devastated they were when they heard the news. They said that they felt as if they were being punished, although they did not know what for.

I believe that the only way forward is the one that Tim Brighouse, the Commissioner for London Schools, has proposed, ie that schools should work together in local groups, maybe including local further-education colleges or independent schools, to give all children access to what is on offer, educationally, in their area. It would be hard to organise, and problems would have to be ironed out, but if it got rid of this awful lottery, it would be worth the effort.
Miranda McVei, London SE25

Why do we keep ignoring the most obvious solution? Bring back grammar schools. Straightforward selection on ability is fairer, more open and more transparent than anything that goes on now. It allows all children an equal chance, including those from poor families. Standards of teaching and achievement have always been high in grammar schools, and with this system, everyone knows where they stand.
Graham Ridgway, Exeter

The reason that politicians don't talk much about this is that they know it isn't a problem for most voters. In my area, secondary- school transfer goes ahead quite smoothly. Parents are disappointed if they don't get their first choice, but most seem quickly to find another one. It's only in places where there aren't enough places to go round, or where parents are terrified of their children having to go to "sink" schools, alongside children from "the wrong side of the tracks", that it becomes such an emotional issue.

You could say that politicians are being sensible, steering clear of a problem that they know that they can afford to avoid.
Lewis Fareham, Bedfordshire

Next week's quandary

My son's private school seems to discourage boys from applying to Oxbridge, saying that it is too competitive. Our son was put off the idea when he attended an Oxbridge talk at school. Yet he has all A*s at GCSE, and is passionate about his subject. We think that he stands a good chance, and should at least try. How do we convince him to have a go?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by 2 May, at The Independent, Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack with cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

h.wilce@btinternet.com

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