Leading article: The myths of choice and parental power in our schools in schools

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The Independent Online

In the calendar of parental stress, the day that families discover which secondary school their children will attend is fast becoming a rival of GCSE and A-level results day. The sense of anticipation in tens of thousands of homes will be palpable today as letters from local authorities slither through letterboxes to inform parents of the schools to which their offspring have been allocated.

It is an especially charged occasion this year because a new admissions code came into force last year which, among other things, banned schools from interviewing parents and gave local authorities the right to hold lotteries to decide admissions. The Government felt that the old system was increasingly becoming a middle-class racket, exacerbating social segregation by giving wealthier parents a host of opportunities to shoe-horn their children into the better local schools.

But when vested interests are taken on there is always resistance. And many schools are concerned that, if the new code proves effective in levelling the playing field, thousands more disgruntled middle-class parents will appeal against the decisions. The Conservatives are looking to capitalise on such discontent. The party has attacked the lottery allocation system that has been implemented by local authorities such as Brighton. The Tory education spokesman Michael Gove has asked: "Would you like the fate of your children to be decided by the spin of the roulette wheel?"

The straightforward riposte to this is another question: "Should a child's fate be decided by the ability of their parents to buy a house in a desirable school's catchment area?" A lottery is the just way to decide admissions where certain schools are heavily over-subscribed. But the Conservatives are right to argue that admissions processes and appeals are, actually, a side show. While some schools are heavily over-subscribed, some parents will always be disappointed. The real objective should be to raise standards across the board so that parents consider the vast majority of schools acceptable.

In fairness, the Government recognises this, which is why it is establishing more independent academies and foundation schools and also attempting to give parents more "choice" over their children's education as a means of driving up standards. Legitimate questions can be asked over whether ministers are moving fast enough. But at least they recognise that reform is necessary. This is more than can be said for the teaching unions, which have become the main obstacles to the establishment of more academies and remain stubbornly hostile to attempts to cater for the rising expectations of parents regarding their children's education.

The head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Dr John Dunford, could be heard arguing yesterday that "school choice is a myth" and criticising the Government for raising unrealistic expectations from parents. Meanwhile, George Phipson of the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association complained that appeals are becoming a major bureaucratic burden on schools. The tone of such interventions sounds worryingly close to: "You'll get what you're given and if you don't like it, tough."

This is the mentality that has done so much damage to secondary education in the state sector in Britain. Parents who take a close interest in their children's education should be regarded as a blessing, not an irritant. It is time that everyone involved in schooling accepted that the purpose of the state secondary system is to provide a decent education for every child in Britain to the satisfaction of the nation and, most of all, parents. Schools exist for the benefit of pupils, not for the providers of this public service.