Alan Smithers: School admissions is the real issue

Andrew Adonis's switch from education to transport leaves the Government's schools policy even more confused. Almost single-handedly, Adonis has conceived and driven forward academies, the independent schools within the state sector that seemed to be the future. Yet, just as the programme is gathering momentum, he moves on or is moved on.

Academies are not the only type of school Labour has promoted. Since 1997, there has been an explosion of specialist schools – and then 2006 brought trust schools. The latest offering is national-challenge schools. All are worthy attempts to enable individual schools to improve. But what is much less clear is how they, and all the previous types of school, are supposed to fit together.

This represents a great opportunity for the Conservatives, which so far they have fumbled. Rather than explaining how they would bring shape to the haphazard collection of schools they would inherit, they have toured Sweden and come back with ideas – vouchers, and ways for parents and others to open new schools – which are likely to lead to further fragmentation.

Both parties are ducking the essential issue in a coherent system: who gets the places. What seems not to be fully appreciated is just how socially selective comprehensive schools really are. Eligibility for free school meals is a blunt measure, but it reveals, as the Sutton Trust has shown, a shocking contrast between the schools with the best and the worst examination results. This is obvious when you think about it: prosperous parents use their purchasing power to cluster around what they perceive as good schools.

The fairest way of allocating places in oversubscribed schools is by ballot. Parents could still choose, but where there were too many applicants, all would have an equal chance of getting in. At the opposite end of the option spectrum, state schools, like independent schools, could be left to select in any way they wanted.

The trouble is that both are politically difficult. Ballots would take power away from parents who know how to play the present arrangements, and psephology – the statistical analysis of elections – has it that these are just the votes needed to win elections.

Letting schools decide would mean that some would opt for academic selection, which raises a spectre of its own. It is not surprising that both parties should want to fudge. The Labour Party points to an improved admissions code, but the blunt truth is that this masks covert and extreme social selection. The Conservatives say there is no problem: they will simply create more good schools. But a lot of things have to come together to make a good school, and some schools will always be more popular. In that event, the Conservatives say it will be first come first served. In practice, this would mean either having to put names down before birth, or Wimbledon-type queues for weeks before applications opened, with prosperous parents hiring queue-sitters.

Admissions rules may seem a minor technical issue. But try telling that to any parent who has experienced the nightmare. With sound admissions arrangements it would be perfectly possible to bring the current diverse collection of schools together into a coherent whole. This would not have to mean more state control. It would, in fact, make sense to give more autonomy to schools, but bind them together through a common approach to allocating places.

Schools change children; that is the point of them. Those who go to good schools end up cleverer than those who go to poor schools. There is no point in going on about widening access to universities when it is entry to schools that must be made equitable. It goes without saying that getting it right is vital to children's life chances, social cohesion and economic prosperity.

Our politicians have to bite the bullet. Are places in popular schools to be decided by ballot, letting schools select, or something in between, such as banding by ability and ballots within bands? Let's have an end to the seemingly endless invention of school types and more focus on the architecture of a truly national education system.

The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham