It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Choice? There is absolutely zero when it comes to getting your child into a school

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First, the bad news: our local police station is closing down. But here’s the good news: it’s being turned into a new primary school. Such is the demand for places around our neck of the woods – in Southwark, south London – that we are pathetically grateful for a new school, even if it means local law enforcement is being downgraded. Sure, we will have to travel further to report a minor crime, but this, yes even this, is a small price to pay to get our children into a local school when the alternative can be a daily journey miles away.

Today, like hundreds of thousands  of parents, we found out where our daughter will go to primary school this September. We live a block away from our nearest school (rated good by Ofsted) – we can see the corner of the playground from our window – yet there was still huge uncertainty over whether she would get in. We did get our first choice – but what about our neighbours and the tens of thousands of others who did not?

Our next-nearest primary has an even smaller catchment area and despite the school promising parents at its open days that there would be a “bulge year” – doubling the number of places from 30  to 60 – the local council, Lewisham, decided (two months after the closing  date for applications) that this would be too expensive.

The new school on the police station site, while welcome, won’t open until September 2015. Some families live just one-third of a mile away from their nearest primary yet are too far away from anywhere to get in – languishing in a sort of schools black hole.

So when we filled in our top six “choices” in January it felt utterly meaningless. Choice? There is absolutely zero choice when it comes to getting your child into a school. You are either lucky enough to already live close to a good school, or have to spend a fortune on buying (or renting) to get near enough to one some years in advance, or break the bank going private, or, like many, are forced to put up with what you get.

The situation is the same across the country. It is true that eight out of 10 primaries in England are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, yet as many as 80,000 families will have missed out on their first choices yesterday. In some ways, Ofsted ratings are not as important as either having a good feel for the school when you visit or living close enough to walk there with your child in a few minutes.

When I toured local primaries on their open days, I was much more impressed by the nearest one, rated good, where the staff were enthusiastic and clearly striving to be more successful, than the second-nearest, rated outstanding, where the headteacher seemed offhand and we would have had a twice daily bus ride there and back. Of course Ofsted inspections matter, but we cannot pretend they offer parents any real choice.

We are 18 years on from Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” speech, and yet, while his academies programme has been transformative, why is the pressure for places still so high? When Michael Gove promised a schools’ revolution, with free schools being created across the country, our daughter was a newborn baby. I imagined that, within four years, by the time this moment had come, there would be real choice. Yes, money for free schools has been forthcoming, and there are more than 200,000 extra places since May 2010, but a fifth of these are in poor schools. And that money for free schools – £1.5bn instead of the planned £450m – has been spent in many cases where there is no demand for places: shiny new institutions sucking the life out of existing state schools and making the playing field more uneven, not less. As the National Audit Office reported in December, more than a quarter of all spending on school buildings – £241m out of £950m – was on free schools in areas with no need for extra places.

A year into office, Gove scrapped the Building Schools for the Future programme, leaving existing establishments struggling to rebuild classrooms. The site of the old police station will indeed become a  free school in an area of  severe demand. But the  lack of choice for  parents is criminal.

Rhododendrons may be alien, but they're beautiful

The European Union believes that there is an evil lurking in the British shrubbery: and it’s not Nigel Farage after a few too many down the boozer.

A blacklist of invasive species to be banned by Brussels is all set to include Rhododendron ponticum, which can harbour diseases that kill neighbouring trees and costs millions to eradicate. Yet, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, banning this  species would affect  around 300 hybrids where R. ponticum is a parent, in  turn making our garden borders less stunning.

I can see why Japanese knotweed, which has few redeeming features and can destroy the foundations of skyscrapers, is highly dangerous; and the oak processionary moth, also on the list, is just downright scary. But surely there is something we can do to preserve the beautiful showy flowers of the many rhododendron varieties?

The Brussels ban will make selling them illegal and killing them mandatory. The RHS is concerned about a lack of clarity from the EU – surely an understatement about an institution which so often can’t see the  wood for the trees. But if  we are to see our parks denuded of rhodos, perhaps Europe can give us some money to replace them with legal plants?

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