Education: When big does not mean beautiful: Judith Judd considers how parent choice can be made to fit

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The Independent Online
To a parent lobbying for a place at a successful but bulging secondary school, John Patten's announcement that popular schools will be allowed to expand looks like the answer to a prayer. Until now, schools have been prevented from expanding if there are empty places in neighbouring schools. From the autumn this restriction will disappear and market forces will reign, the latest stage in a policy that aims to give more parents their first choice of school.

As long ago as 1980, the law was changed to insist that local authorities could not direct parents to less popular schools while there were still spaces in popular ones. In two education Acts, in 1986 and 1988, the government tried to bolster parent power again. Open enrolment, allowing parents to choose whichever school they wished, regardless of catchment area, was introduced.

These measures had only a limited effect. The proportion of parents failing to get their first choice of secondary school is uncertain, but appears to have remained at around 10 per cent, according to the latest government figures. However, the number of those appealing against their allocation has risen by a third. Parents have been promised more, and so expect more.

Dr Colin Harrison, of Nottingham University education department, says: 'The only strategy available to parents at the moment seems to be to move, and that's possible only for a minority.'

Will the latest initiative fare better? Liz Allen, of the Advisory Centre for Education, is dubious. 'Parents won't notice a great difference, certainly not for several years. Schools can't just put up an extra classroom overnight. And it's not just a question of classrooms. They need extra space in the canteen and the hall. Some have no space to expand into.'

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: 'I think we can assume that there will be more money. It is the first time the Government has thrown its weight behind the expansion of popular schools by offering capital grants.' Some heads, he believes, will leap at the opportunity.

It is not clear how much money the Government will be prepared to pay for more buildings. The Department for Education says each application for a capital grant will be decided on its merits. A similar policy announced just before the last election was quietly dropped after opposition from the Treasury.

Even if the policy is successful and more parents get their first choice of school, there is a downside. David Whitbread, education under-secretary at the Association of County Councils, points out that no head of widely admired private schools, such as Eton and Winchester, would dream of allowing the sort of indefinite expansion apparently envisaged by Mr Patten, who suggested recently that a school of 2,300 (the size of Great Barr, a successful grant maintained school in Birmingham) was not too large. Indeed, Eric Anderson, the retiring head of Eton, wrote last month in a national newspaper that small schools were best. He considered Eton, with more than 1,000 pupils a large school, though it, of course, was the exception that proved the rule.

Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute for Economic Affairs, says many secondary schools here have 1,000 pupils while the average size in Switzerland, Holland and Germany is around 500. 'Many of the social problems of our classrooms are caused by the loss of intimate contact in big schools. This is particularly true for low attainers.'

Apart from ever-growing schools, the policy presents another difficulty. Alongside the Government's other policies to promote competition in the education marketplace, the freedom to expand may lead to the creation of sink schools. Research by Professor Michael Adler in Scotland shows that legislation increasing parental choice of school has led to an exodus of pupils from schools in the least prosperous areas.

'All in all,' he concludes, 'the evidence suggests the Parents' Charter is leading to the emergence of a number of highly sought-after and a number of very unpopular secondary schools and thus to inequalities in educational provision.'

Mr Whitbread argues that some local authority intervention in the allocation of school places helps to counter inequality. Hertfordshire county council, where he used to work, restricted all its secondary schools to five forms of entry. Some did not fill all five, but the popular schools were prevented from becoming six-, seven- or eight-form entry. 'A major influence on parents is the sort of children their children are going to mix with. Under this system, the middle- class element was spread around and parental dissatisfaction reduced.'

Ultimately, he argues, Mr Patten's determination to let the market rule may prove a vicious circle for parents. 'If an unpopular school is eventually forced to close because it has the grottiest children in it, those grotty children whom middle-class parents hoped to avoid may well turn up in the middle-class school.'

There will never be a magic formula for allocating school places so that all parents are happy. Nobody wants to go back to the days when local authorities directed pupils to schools where they did not want to go while empty places remained at their first choice. Some parents will be delighted if the Government provides money to help popular schools to admit more pupils. Others may pause for thought. Is a system where the weakest schools wither in anyone's interests? And can a monster school (Eton, of course, excepted) be a good school?

(Photograph omitted)