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The Government is keen on the vision thing, but just what is its picture on secondary education?
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PARENTHOOD HAS many crises. Lack of sleep, worry over illnesses and the shock of the first boyfriend or girlfriend come to mind. But, these days, few rival the heartache that can be experienced in getting your child into secondary school.

What should be a straightforward transition has become a seemingly endless round of prospectuses, visits, applications and disappointments. Parents are being put through this agony because of a black hole in the Government's policy. While it has accepted that there should be a diversity of secondary schools, with parents choosing between them, it has not resolved what to do when choices do not exactly match places.

In the past, secondary school admissions have been decided in essentially two ways - Conservative, and old Labour. The Conservative was academic selection. While this had the merit of allocating places on genuinely educational criteria, it did reject a lot of youngsters and consign them to what many regarded as sink schooling.

Old Labour's approach was to try to get all secondary schools as alike as possible, so that parents would be content to send their children to the nearest one. This came unstuck because it did not reckon with the huge variation in starting-points, or the fact that canny parents would move closer to the better schools, increasing the differences still further. House prices near favoured schools shot up, leading, in effect, to admission by ability to pay.

There is every reason, therefore, why New Labour should have sought a third way. But, in this case, the third way seems to consist of accepting the ambiguities and then claiming them as an advantage.

The Government has avowed that "standards matter more than structures". It has continued the Conservative policy of subsidising secondary schools, and allowing them to select 10 per cent of the intake - but on aptitude not on ability (whatever the difference may be). It is against selection, but will live with existing grammar schools unless a ballot of parents in the locality decides otherwise.

Parents can thus find themselves having to cope with decisions based on, among other things, ability, aptitude, brothers and sisters, proximity to a school, access by public transport, and religious affiliation. The Greenwich Judgment established that local education authority schools may not give priority to local children, but the Rotherham Judgment deemed that there is nothing unlawful about catchment areas.

The Government is fond of the vision thing, but just what is its picture of secondary education? So far all we have had is a cop-out - that diversity is good in itself. But that diversity is the motley residue of different educational eras, and it cannot be given shape by just renaming grant- maintained schools.

Anything the Government decided would be likely to bring more upheaval to a system already reeling from a surfeit of reform, so I can understand its reluctance to think in terms of fundamental reorganisation however necessary it may be.

Fortunately, there is a simple short-term solution. Places in oversubscribed schools could be decided by ballot. Parents could express their preferences for, say, three schools, and if the first had more applications than places, then there would be a ballot. Those not getting in would go into the ballot for their second choice, and so on until all the children had been accommodated. Although some parents might not be happy with this element of chance, it would be a lot fairer than leaving arrangements open for the pushy to pull strings.

Alan Smithers is Sydney Jones Professor of Education at the University of Liverpool