Lesson one: Hobson's choice: Parents have no real power over which schools their children go to, says Donald Hirsch

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MAY IS a nail-biting month for many parents, myself included. Haringey Council in north London will be making allocations to my son's first choice of primary school, which has many more applicants than places.

It is five years since British parents were first officially granted a free choice of school for their children. But obtaining a place for them in the 'right' one still depends too often on class, luck or cunning. This problem of schools choosing pupils rather than the other way round is a result of two fundamental differences between publicly funded school places and products sold in the market-place. Places at popular schools are not rationed by price, and there is no systematic mechanism to increase their supply to meet demand. So somebody must be disappointed.

In Britain, as in New Zealand and Sweden under governments with similar ideologies, public money 'follows pupils' to whichever school they choose to attend. But while this money allows some schools to hire more teachers and buy more books, it does not cover the cost of new buildings. The number of places available in particular schools, and the decision where to open and where to close schools, remain political choices. Not even the most laissez-faire of governments has yet dared apply the full brutal logic of the market by letting unpopular schools wither while popular ones expand.

This raises two key questions for governments and schools. First and most obvious is how to allocate scarce places. The easiest and most common way is according to who lives closest, but whether this is always fairest is open to debate. Certainly, it does not address a problem that school choice is supposed to reduce: the tendency of poor families to be trapped in worse schools near their homes, while better- off families ensure that they live near nice ones.

In New Zealand, where parental control and school choice have been taken further, faster than in Britain, schools are playing a far from neutral role in this sorting process. All schools have effectively been 'opted out' of anything resembling a co-ordinated system; over-subscribed schools are able to define their own markets by selecting children however they like. This may include defining catchment areas that conveniently take in well-heeled enclaves or avoid disadvantaged ones, or adopting vaguely defined criteria of pupil aptitude that award the headteacher complete discretion over whom to admit.

Is this Britain's future? Or might we learn instead from the United States, where concern for due process, combined with court-ordered race desegregation, has created an attempt to ensure balanced intakes? Some Massachusetts cities have gone as far as to limit the priority given to local residents in favour of random selection. In Boston, where forced bussing failed so miserably 20 years ago, people are today being persuaded to move around voluntarily: 57 per cent of children go to schools other than the one closest to their homes; 85 per cent are given their first choice of school, and 94 per cent are given one of their first two choices.

But a good match between the schools that people choose and the ones they end up with cannot be guaranteed by allocations policy alone. Thus the second and more vital question for schools and governments: is it possible to avoid every parent choosing from the same criteria - a sure recipe for disappointment? Can a hierarchy of 'good' and 'bad' schools be replaced by a range of schools that are simply seen as different?

The British Government's slogan of 'choice and diversity' appears to address this issue, but forces the question of how far difference really is tolerated. This is a matter not only of how prescriptive to make the national curriculum, but of cultural attitudes to education.

Researchers from King's College London have found that headteachers constantly hedge their bets when explaining the character of schools to prospective parents. They are keen to point to their particular strengths ('We have a wonderful music teacher'/'We like our children to express themselves'), but are quick to cover themselves with balancing characteristics ('Of course, our science labs are also very good'/'Naturally we put a lot of stress on discipline').

This is prudent, given that most parents look for quality in a general sense rather than an 'alternative' school culture. But overall, such mimicking works against exciting educational innovation, and against real qualitative choice.

Consider, by contrast, two foreign examples. In East Harlem, New York, groups of teachers are allowed to apply their own educational ideas to run small, competing schools (sometimes several to a building). This has produced choices ranging from unstructured, project-based classrooms to uniforms and Latin, and has created enthusiasm about education and improved standards in a poor area. In Denmark, groups of parents are given state grants to start up private schools of whatever character they want - provided only that the parents remain genuinely in charge.

The Danes tolerate difference in a way that our government hesitates to do. The recent 'scandals' of Romeo and Juliet in Hackney, north London, and numerous moves to curb sex education that offends tabloid morals illustrate the dilemma of a government that has promised autonomy to schools, but faces moralistic pressures from within and without to keep them on the straight and narrow.

A Danish school that I visited last year had been founded in 1968 on the Summerhill model; its instruction and management had grown more chaotic as the years went by. It has recently transformed to a more structured progressivism better suited to the Nineties. The change was painful but the Government played no part in it: it was necessitated by a steady loss of pupils. The logic of choice was allowed to act as the control.

Around the world there are, unfortunately, more examples of schools pretending to be distinctive by claiming special characteristics as a marketing ploy than those offering genuinely different models of education. British educators have plenty of innovative ideas, but find themselves increasingly drawn towards caution and conformity. England's cricketers have a similar problem: the desire not to make mistakes, rather than to aim high. If the conditions can be created for the Brian Laras of education to step boldly forward, parents may at last have some exciting alternatives to choose between.

The writer is author of 'School: A Matter of Choice', a six-country study published last Friday by the OECD ( pounds 16 from HMSO). He writes here in a personal capacity.

(Photograph omitted)