Real choices?

Parental choice, once heralded as the cornerstone of the Government's education policy, has been shown to be a delusion - particularly in London. How should the matter be resolved?
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The Independent Online
This term, parents across the country will learn whether their children have been allocated a place at the secondary school of their choice. Nearly one in five, rising to one in two in London, is destined to be disappointed. The growing problem of a mismatch between pupils and places, particularly in the capital, may come as no surprise to many parents, who are now becoming well versed in the art of strategic house moves and other tactics in order to secure Harriet or Joshua a place at their favoured institution. But firm evidence confirming their experiences and the grim warnings of heads' teaching unions and local authorities is only now coming to light.

A flurry of new facts and figures on school places began last month with the publication of Trading Places, a report by the Audit Commission which revealed that twice as many parents were failing to get their first choice of school than previous official estimates had suggested. The damning study cast fundamental doubts over the success of the Government's cornerstone education policy: parental choice.

The schools admissions system risked gridlock, it said, as popular schools struggled with oversized classes - one in three breaking the Government's own restrictions on pupil numbers - while unpopular ones supported 900,000 empty places at an estimated cost of pounds 100m.

Hard on the heels of Trading Places came figures released by the Labour Party highlighting a rise of almost 25 per cent between 1993-4 and the following year in appeals by dissatisfied parents over school-place allocations. London was again found to be the worst hit.

Further evidence of London's spiralling place-planning problems will come early next month, when the quango that funds grant maintained schools publishes a report on secondary school places in the capital. The study, the first of a series covering the whole country, will paint a grim picture, predicting a shortfall of up to 22,500 places within the next six years which could cost the Government pounds 146m to remedy.

The deficit is due mainly to the capital's increasing birth-rate, combined with an influx of families from elsewhere in Britain and from overseas, and it can only worsen the stress for parents embarking on the annual places race.

The parents' pressure group Campaign for State Education (Case), which annually hears countless tales of woe from parents around the country, is already familiar with the distress that disappointment can cause. Margaret Tulloch, secretary of Case, says: "If parents have got to the point where they can't actually get their child into their local school, never mind one they like the look of, across the county or city, they feel betrayed. The problem is, they have often been misled into thinking that there is some kind of untrammelled choice, and expectations have been raised which cannot be fulfilled."

Whereas Case has a political axe to grind, the Audit Commission's study offered the first independent analysis of what has gone wrong with the supply and allocation of school places. Part of the problem, the report concluded, was down to local authorities' failure to plan places properly, leaving surpluses in some schools while others were packed to to the rafters.

But though local education authorities came in for criticism, the study found their difficulties were largely caused by a conflict at the heart of government policy. A series of reforms since the late Eighties had aimed to bring market forces into the system of supplying places, giving schools greater autonomy, yet disempowered local authorities were still expected to make the system work, the report said. The Government's intention, that popular schools would expand to meet demand while weaker ones went to the wall, had failed to be carried out because the system was not a real market, and because money had not been made available for growth. Local authorities could act to remove surplus places, but the Government should give local agencies more power to manage the education market.

Authorities, bracing themselves for the annual round of admissions appeals, have seized on the report with relief. Chris Waterman, education officer with the Association of London Government, says: "At the moment we are stuck in a hopeless no-man's-land between the operation of a true market and a planned economy. We have got the disadvantages of both, and everyone is passing the buck to everyone else."

London, with its high level of cross-borough movement by pupils and a wider range of school choice than many areas, may have been hardest hit by the present planning system, but authorities in the capital and outside speak with one voice over the changes needed. Predictably, they want a return to greater local control over planning, including over grant maintained schools, and less obligation to refer decisions to the Education Secretary for approval. David Whitbread, education officer for the Association of County Councils, says: "You can't really have fragmented responsibility for planning of school places. We would argue that LEAs are democratically elected, have traditionally had planning responsibility and ought to have it back."

The Education Bill currently passing through Parliament, which would allow opted-out schools to expand by up to 50 per cent, and permit greater selection, will create even greater planning mayhem, the authorities warn.

The LEAs could see most of their wishes on planning come true under a Labour government, which would not only repeal the new Education Act but would restore greater control of admissions planning to councils. With grant maintained schools coming back under the authority wing as foundation schools, LEAs would once more have overall local responsibility for all state school planning.

The opted-out-school quango, the Funding Agency for Schools, facing abolition under Labour, not surprisingly favours an alternative scenario. LEAs, particularly the new unitary authorities, are, it claims, too small to plan effectively. Its solution to flaws in the current system would involve increasing its own powers to become the nucleus of a national or regional schools strategic planning body, free of the need to take account of local authority borders.

As LEAs and the FAS jostle for a greater say in dictating the movements of the nation's schoolchildren, ministers find they are no safer from attack on the right flank.

The hybrid system of a schools market-place combined with some local planning does not satisfy right-wing critics, who would prefer a rapid move to a completely free market.

Sheila Lawlor, director of the right-wing think-tank Politeia, calls for all state schools to be freed from local authority control and funded via vouchers held by parents. "Once you take that step a lot of these problems disappear, because if schools don't attract children they will be closed down. Parents will see the system is fair, because every child will have the same opportunity to come to a school as any other."

Despite criticism, the Government is showing no sign of veering from its course on planning, denying that its policies represent a half-way house and dismissing the Audit Commission's conclusions as simplistic. Parents of 10- and 11-year-olds, meanwhile, await word on their preferred places, still unaware whether they will be among the unlucky one in five.