Leading Article: Tough choices for all concerned

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The Independent Online

The news that children are still being denied places at sought-after schools because heads are flouting tough new admission rules shows that the promise of parental choice has turned sour for many. Jim Knight, the schools minister, last week issued a stern warning to schools that covert admission practices penalising low-income families would not be tolerated. Schools have been caught using tactics such as asking for parents' marriage certificates, adopting prohibitively expensive uniforms, or posing questions "that are really a way of assessing the size of [family] income".

Since the new code forbidding selection by schools was introduced last September, 79 schools have been investigated by the independent Office of the School Adjudicator. Knight is right that there is no excuse for a school to break the code.

In the last year, the school adjudicator has upheld complaints against schools that asked parents to attend interviews, failed to give priority to children in care, and produced unnecessary supplementary forms. Schools have also been guilty of asking parents to give their reasons for applying and making subjective judgments about whether those reasons are better than those given by other parents. Parents have been unfairly asked about the order of preference for their choices of school. Knight has now written to all 150 councils warning that not all parents have a fair chance of getting into a school of their choice this September, despite the new code.

Of course, schools must not breach the code – under the tougher code, they will break the law if they do. However, the root of the problem lies in the way parents' expectations have been raised to unrealistic levels. It would be impossible for everyone to get a place at the school of their choice.

Sir Bruce Liddington, the schools commissioner, summed up the problem when he told a select committee this week that the country's most oversubscribed school – Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College in south London – would need to offer more than 30,000 additional places to meet local demand. The Government needs to be more realistic. Politicians of all parties have allowed parents to think they will be able to get a place at the school of their choice. In reality, all parents can do is express a preference and hope for the best.

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