Nikki Schreiber: This desperate scrabble for places will continue

Click to follow

The jury's back in and the schools adjudicator, Sir Philip Hunter, says that more than half of state schools breach admissions law. What's more, the majority of those breaches are by faith schools, and one in five of them is asking improper questions on application forms. This essentially means checking out parents' credentials. Of course, it's impossible to know how much covert scrutiny of parents' credentials might go on by selective secondary schools just having a quick chat with the staff at the primary feeder schools.

This is no great surprise. Faith schools are among the top-performing state schools in the country and, as a result, it is not just practising families who want places; in fact, the number of Christian church-goers is inversely proportionate to the growing number of parents wanting places in Christian faith schools. So, clearly, in many cases it is a higher standard of education that is being sought, not faith. There simply aren't enough places in these well-performing faith schools to go around, and when this is combined with the schools being hazy on the admissions rules, it is bound to result in children missing out on places to which they are entitled – and, in some cases, litigation.

This unfair scrabble for places arises as a result of the marked discrepancy between the standards of the top- and bottom-performing schools in the United Kingdom. It is natural that energetic parents are going to explore the options open to them to secure places at well-performing faith schools if the alternative in their catchment area performs poorly. The stakes are high: it is about giving your children the best chance in life, after all.

Interestingly, this scrabble isn't happening in the world's highest-achieving education systems. Why? Because there simply isn't the yawning gulf between the top- and bottom-performing schools. A 2007 report by the McKinsey group, "How the World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out On Top", looked at 25 education systems to find out which of them worked best. They found that the highest-achieving systems ensured minimal variation in standards between schools. The way they did this was to attract the highest-quality students into teaching, and to provide good salaries, high status and – very important – a lot of support, mentoring and time to learn from other teachers.

Over the past decade, a great deal has been done to attract the talented into teaching in the UK, with well-targeted marketing and recruitment drives taken from best practice in business. In addition, salaries have increased and this in turn has improved the status of teaching. Once the status of the profession has gone up, more talented people are attracted in – and that improves the status further. It is a virtuous circle.

It is important, however, to keep those talented teachers in the classroom. Worryingly, government figures show that 11 per cent of teachers leave the profession each year, often as a result of stress, which suggests that more attention needs to be given to that all-important support and mentoring. In Singapore, for example, teachers get 100 hours of professional development a year, and in Finland and Japan teachers regularly work together, planning lessons jointly, observing each other's lessons and helping one another to improve. This support structure remains in place all the time, for all teachers, at all levels.

Clearly, debate and funding need to concentrate on continued recruitment of good teachers and on helping them to maintain their commitment, even in difficult circumstances. If the right people are in the classroom and the support structure is in place, standards in all schools will improve. Unless the level of education at one school is more or less equivalent to that at the next, popular schools will continue to select pupils. The schools, not parents, will continue to do the choosing, and the undignified scrabble for school places will remain an annual event.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has said that every parent should have the right to send their child to the school of their choice if they can get in on fair criteria. That is a worthy statement, but unfortunately it will remain little more than rhetoric unless the underlying polarisation of standards is addressed.