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Alison Shepherd: Money buys the best state education

Every child deserves a good school place

An education system that produces record-breaking GCSE and A-level results year after year ought to instil pride both in children and parents. And yet last month the Government that has presided over this incredible rise in achievement released figures showing that the number of children skipping school, preferring to hang listlessly around shopping precincts, has risen to its highest ever level.

Parents too are dissatisfied: last year, 62,000 households appealed against a school's refusal to take their child. And more than 1,000 were caught lying or cheating to try to get their child into the primary or secondary of their choice. "Choice" is the watchword of a Labour Government keen to recast parents as simple consumers. But there are some things too important to leave to market forces, and education is one. For make no mistake, it is money that buys choice. Money has always been a way of leaving the system altogether, but now even for those in state education it buys a house in the right catchment area, hires lawyers for the appeal when even renting a second "home" in that area didn't swing it and pays for private tutors to get your child through the myriad of entrance exams, the 11-plus, key stage 2 SATs.

And if you have enough money, even if not much to spare, to invest in your child's future, you're not just going to sit back and think "Well, at least we tried" when Ophelia or Felix ends up at the not so local, maybe even "sink" comprehensive, missing out on the better, closer option because it was only sixth on your list of back-ups. No, you're going to fight every inch of the way.

We can't blame these parents; we all want what we think is best for our children. And we have been led to believe that even the choice of "right" primary school can make or break the adult life of today's four-year-old. But what is best can vary from region to region, even council to council. I confess my daughters are at a selective school, but – and I do feel the need to justify our decision – if you live in Kent it is difficult to shake off the feeling that it would be next to neglect not to fight for a grammar school place, when the alternative is to leave your child to sink or swim in schools that even on open evenings can scarcely disguise an inferiority complex. We can blame a state system that allows such differences to flourish. Why should parents be faced with such contrasts when choosing that most basic of rights – education?

But this Labour Government has done little to narrow the gap. Instead, it has created even more schools that can cherry-pick the brightest children. The names vary: academies, city technology colleges and specialist schools, but selection is how they operate. And, of course, there are still faith-based institutions.

In the north-east London borough of Redbridge, where about one in 10 parents appealed against admission decisions last year, almost half the children are awarded a school place on some sort of selective principle, whether by one of the two grammars, four faith, or two foundation schools. That's eight out of the 17 schools available. When any school starts with the "bottom" half of the available 11-year-olds, who are there only because they lack academic prowess, a special talent, faith, or parents willing to take on the system, it's a very steep climb up the league table and into a parent's reckoning.

Now, Michael Gove, the Conservative counterpart to Education Secretary Ed Balls, believes the answer to the rise in admission appeals is to give parents even more choice. But the more you winnow, the more indigestible bran you leave behind, only in this case we are talking about children.

What most parents want is not more a boutique system, but homogenisation, so that each March they need not dread the post because whichever school your child is allocated will prepare them well for their adult lives.