The choice isn't yours, parents

Schools, not families, make the real decisions about where children are educated, writes Angela Phillips

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Parental choice in education is a fiction, as parents of 11-year- olds all over the country are about to learn.Over the next few weeks they will receive the letters that determine the educational fate of their children. For the majority the news will be that they have not been offered a place at the school of their choice. As one parent whose five-month search for the right school for her son is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary to be screened tomorrow, puts it: "The school chooses, the parents don't."

Cutting Edge followed six sets of north London parents as they tested John Major's pledge that "choice is the driving force of our policy". Like Harriet Harman and Tony Blair, all believe that their children deserve more than the ordinary. Five of the families had already decided that their child was too precious to sacrifice to a local "comp" and each starts off optimistically, forcing their child through a round of gruelling entrance examinations for that tiny number of places at free, grant-maintained, selective schools to put them at the front of the educational race with a guaranteed crop of top exam results in five years' time.

It is like watching butterflies have their wings clipped. Six lovely, bubbly children are stripped of their confidence as all but one fail to make the grade. Craig, the only black child, visits Latymer in Enfield and is palpably uneasy. "The building is like a church, there weren't no Indians, no mixed, no black - just lots of white people. I'll take the exam but I don't want to go." It is a subdued Craig who later observes, puzzled: "It's weird that I failed. I thought I did quite well."

Lawrence, whose parents hadn't had the foresight to cram him for the exams, is filmed chewing the geometry set he doesn't know how to use, as he sits the exam for City of London, an independent school often chosen by cash-strapped, middle-class parents with an eye on the assisted places scheme which could pay all, or part, of the pounds 6,000 per annum fees (nearly three times the cost of a state secondary school place ). He also fails.

The parents gradually have to swallow the fact that, love them as they might, their children are not special enough. At Latymer 1,800 children from all over north London are competing for 180 places. That is not just the top 10 per cent, it is 10 per cent of children already deemed to be top of their classes. Katherine, the only one of the six who succeeds, had been privately tutored for two years.

The programme leaves the children back in the system their parents have rejected but with the added handicap of the taste of failure. At least, one might suppose, the children will now be able to exercise the "choice" of attending their local non-selective school. Not so. If Cutting Edge had continued to monitor the progress of the six children through the minefield of Tory free-market educational policy, it would have found that their problems were by no means over.

Last year the Audit Commission reported that one child in 10 had not secured the place he or she wanted; a further one in 10 had failed even to ask for their first choice because canny parents know that it sometimes makes sense to opt for a less popular school more likely to accept their child than to go for the one they really want and risk failure and an allocation they would find completely unacceptable.

Take Stoke Newington School in north London (ironically one of the schools that the Cutting Edge parents were rejecting when they embarked on their selective school marathon). This comprehensive is currently under-going a popularity surge. Parents, quick to spot a trend, have started to parachute in: buying, renting or just borrowing an address close to the school and getting preference over children who have been in a local primary all their educational lives but happen to live a few streets further away. When it comes to choice, the things that matter to children - friendships, easy bus routes, familiarity, safety - are not taken into account at all. Education committees, forced to use legally watertight criteria, can only recognise what can be counted: distance from the school, siblings in the school, exam results.

Neil Storen and Christopher George were pupils at a primary school less than 10 minutes walk from Stoke Newington. All their friends are at "Stokey", but, as parents have bought into the area, the newly drawn, smaller, catchment area excludes their homes. Last year, they were allocated places instead at Homerton Boys. Neither family wanted a boys' school; indeed, few Hackney families do. Less than one-third of the pupils at Homerton are there by choice. So like some 28 per cent of Hackney children, Neil and Christopher were forced out of the borough.

Says Trish George: "We have lived in the area so long, all our friends are here, we just assumed he would go to Stoke Newington. When he didn't get in we were in an absolute panic. Christopher was terribly upset. It is hard enough moving to secondary school without starting all on your own." Christopher is travelling a bus and a train ride away to Potters Bar. Neil is travelling in the opposite direction, to Waterloo. His mother, Lydia, says: "We wanted him in a local school with people he felt comfortable with. He is doing all right where he is but it's a long way to travel and he never sees his friends around here any more. It's just school and home."

Public spending cuts and a policyof school management autonomy which wreaks havoc with local educational authority planning have combined to make nonsense of Major's vision of an educational supermarket in which we can choose schools in the same way that we choose vegetables. As any supermarket manager can tell you, if there is a shortage of peas, customers are not going to be content with carrots. Parents who have been told they can choose naturally want the best. Their decisions are not necessarily rational: fashion and rumour can improve or destroy the reputation of a school. If sufficient followers of fashion desert a perfectly good school it is not long before the rumours become reality. Soon pressure grows for expansion of a good school or for a new school, but tight budgets won't allow more peas to be supplied until the carrots have been eaten. As Roger Witts, a spokesman for the Funding Agency for Schools puts it, "to provide choice and diversity you need enough space in the schools. Otherwise you don't get choice you get musical chairs and the last child in has no choice at all."

The problems in Hackney are exacerbated by its over-supply of girls' places. It has four girls' schools, one boys' school and only four co- ed schools. The majority of parents want co-ed, practically nobody wants a boys' school and three of the girls' schools are under-subscribed in spite of the fierce loyalty of those for whom they are a first choice. The sane decision would be to make two or three of the girls schools co- ed. But, in the Alice in Wonderland world of parent-controlled planning policies, the obvious cannot always be done.

Mohammed Mehmet, deputy director of Hackney schools, explains. "If we apply for funding for a new school, the Department for Education may well say that we already have surplus places in our single-sex schools - even though people don't want them. If we decide to change a girls' school to co-ed against the wishes of the governors, they may well opt out. They will then be out of our control and we can do nothing to change the school but their places will still be counted in our total capacity, even though they are not the places people want. It isn't easy."

Far from delivering "choice", the current system merely ensures that those with the sharpest elbows make it to the front. They are only doing what the free market tells them to do - shopping around for the best. But what most parents really want is a good school down the road and that is what a comprehensive system ought to deliver. It can only do that if LEAs are able to make planning decisions and allocate places rationally, and if bright children are not creamed off into a separate system. The Labour Party may end opting out and this will certainly help, but while it is still hooked on the Tory rhetoric of choice it is not going to tell parents the truth: the best way to build a good comprehensive system is to stay put, send your children to the local school, and put their brains and your energy to work improving it.

'Parental Choice' is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow. The writer and her daughter are among those waiting for the letter to drop through the door.

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