Alan Smithers: Why will no party be bold on school admissions?

Soon after I arrived at the University of Buckingham, the vice-chancellor affectionately dubbed me Comrade Smithers. On hearing this, an old friend snorted, "God, if they think you are left wing, what does that say about the rest of the university?" But in this election I find that I am to the left of all three main parties in wanting a simple, clear, centrally set structure for secondary education. The key to this is the admissions process.

None of the parties has been willing to address the nightmare that confronts many parents when their children are due to go to secondary school. This was brilliantly aired in the BBC sitcom Outnumbered. When a grandmother offers her daughter £3,000 to help her get the children into a good school, the daughter replies: "It doesn't work like that; you have to go to church and lie about where you live."

We got into this mess when Tony Blair lighted on diversity as a way of getting himself off the hook regarding his party's antipathy to academic selection. Now it seems that Labour has abandoned all notion of structure.

It was an open goal for the Conservatives, but they have fussed at the margins with "free schools", which at best can be only a safety valve. The Lib Dems have ducked the issue, proposing within-school reforms such as smaller class sizes.

But its the big picture that matters. England's comprehensive schools differ hugely, with children clustered by parental income, ethnicity, faith – and, oh yes, ability. It is not just where the schools are located. Popular schools get many more applicants than places and have to select.

The present haphazard collection of schools is unfair and detrimental to social cohesion. Poor children end up in poorer schools, so they may never get to discover the talents they have. The clustering of children by ethnicity may mean that they never get to know children from other backgrounds.

The parties' admissions policies are pretty puny. Labour has been producing ever more elaborate admissions codes to close loophole after loophole, the Conservatives attempt to sidestep oversubscription by promising to open more good schools, and the Lib Dems favour a premium to incentivise schools to take poor pupils. But none has the boldness to create equitable opportunities for every child. They all fear upsetting those parents who know how to play the present arrangements.

A step forward would be to require sought-after schools to use random allocation rather than selection by distance as now. This would give equal chances to all parents who applied rather than an advantage to those with the financial clout to position themselves close to the school gates. But this would be fair only in so far as parents applied.

Or the system could be given shape by allocating places on educational strengths. The surviving grammar schools are more socially and ethnically equitable than the leading comprehensives.

Other countries seem to have fewer hang-ups about different pathways for children with different talents. Many draw a distinction between lower and upper secondary education, with the two stages in different schools. And most – including that paragon Finland – have different routes through the upper secondary schooling. Entry to particular programmes is usually by parental choice and teacher advice, not through tests.

Education would benefit immensely from drawing together the present motley collection of schools and policies. Raising the leaving age, the 14-19 agenda, specialist schools, attempts to improve practical education such as Lord Baker's, and much else, would fall into place if upper secondary education were given its own identity. Over time, some schools would come to specialise in this phase, while others, the current 11-16 schools, could evolve into neighbourhood primary and lower secondary schools.

My vice-chancellor holds the contrary, libertarian view that a good shape would emerge if only schools were freed up to do their own thing by funding them through vouchers – hence his sobriquet for me. But we both wait in vain for some public acceptance from the political parties that there is a problem, let alone action.

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

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