The Great School Lottery

The principle of selection is a farce. The sought-after schools are the unavailable ones, and the result is chaos, says Judith Judd
Click to follow
Imagine a town where parents have a wide choice of school. There are two grammar schools, single-sex schools, schools which have opted out of local authority control and even one which has not, for those on the left who object to the rest. It looks like a place which fulfils every Conservative's parental choice dream. In fact, it is a parental nightmare.

The town is the London borough of Bromley where Harriet Harman's son, Jo, is in his second term at St Olave's grammar school, and its story is a cautionary tale about the perils of competition in education.

The trouble began when one grant-maintained school, Hayes, applied to the Secretary of State for Education for permission to select 25 per cent of its pupils. Last July, the 13 heads of the other schools got together and agreed that they would all select 15 per cent of their pupils to stop Hayes siphoning off the cleverest children. They are not allowed to select more without permission from the Secretary of State.

Selection inevitably reduces choice for those who are not selected. But, to make matters worse, all except one of the schools picking 15 per cent set their entrance exams on the same day. So parents were forced to choose just one of them. A barrister consulted by the pressure group Campaign for the Advancement of State Education thought this reduced parental choice so drastically that it could be challenged in the courts under the 1980 Education Act, which gives parents the right to express a preference for the school of their choice.

Parental problems in Bromley do not end there. Because nearly all the schools have opted out of local authority control, they all have their own admissions procedures: the local authority does not juggle applications for all schools. A parent wanting to secure a place for a child has to contact each school individually to find out what is happening to that child's application. Easy enough perhaps for a Harman but daunting for a single mother of four with limited time and cash.

Nowhere illustrates more clearly than Bromley that the notion of parental choice depends on who you are and where you live. Yet, for politicians, it has become as inescapable as kissing babies. Long the watchword of the Thatcherite Tories, it has been enthusiastically adopted by new Labour. How could it be otherwise as Tony Blair's son, Euan, heads for his opted- out school on the other side of town and Jo boards the train for St Olave's?

Blair is right to decide he cannot put the clock back 20 years to the time when local authorities told pupils to go to their local school and most of them obeyed. Two education acts (1980 and 1988) have promoted parents' right to choose the schools they want, regardless of where they live. The courts have decreed that pupils do not even have to attend a school within their own local authority.

For some parents there almost certainly is more choice. The number of Euan Blairs is growing as people shop around in search of the education that best fits their child. A three-year Open University study of parental choice among 6,000 parents to be published soon has found that some local schools are losing out in places where parents have a realistic choice of several schools.

So the policy of parental choice has made a difference. But the rhetoric far outstrips the reality. While some of those who shop around succeed (Blair and Harman), for many parents the idea of parental choice is a myth. Quite apart from the bewildering patchwork of schools created in places such as Bromley, popular schools are, by definition, oversubscribed and end up choosing their pupils rather than the other way round.

Even the Government has had reluctantly to recognise that parental choice is not quite what it seems. The first version of its Parents' Charter had a chapter headed "The Right to Choose," obscuring the fact that the only "right" parents have is to "express a preference". Two years and thousands of failed parental appeals over schooling later, ministers had sensed danger. The same chapter in the second version was headed simply "choosing a school". The right mentioned was "to a place at your local school". But the words "choice" and "choose" still peppered the pages and parents were told: "Your choice is wider as a result of recent changes."

In a recent report, the Audit Commission disagreed. It outlined for the first time the extent of parental discontent about school choice. One in five parents failed to get the secondary school of their choice, it said, and in London the figure rose to half. The Open University study, based on three different areas, suggests that between a quarter and half of all parents do not get what they want. Previous figures about choice were an underestimate, both studies suggest, because they failed to take into account a large body of parents who didn't bother to put down the school they really wanted because they knew they had no chance of getting in. Instead, they played a strategic game by putting down their second choice school to make certain they would not be diverted to a third, even less desirable school.

What the Government had created, the commission suggested, was a vast appetite for choice with no means of satisfying it. Parents have been encouraged to choose popular schools but the latter often have neither the money nor the space to expand. The result is chaos.

And the people who benefit most are the articulate middle classes. Research from King's College, London, shows that class dominates the way parents choose schools. While a group of middle-class parents rushes round with clipboards asking about mixed-ability teaching, dual science and the proportion of starred-A grades achieved in Russian GCSEs, low-income families are preoccupied with transport difficulties and whether their children will be plunged into an unfamiliar world. Many of them choose the local school. Some working-class parents do take as much trouble as their more affluent neighbours in choosing schools, but they value different things. They also lack the knowledge to compete if the going gets rough and their children are refused a place. As the King's study puts it: "Cultural capital plays a crucial role, knowing how to approach, present, mount a case, maintain pressure, make an impact, be remembered."

Middle-class parents have another advantage. Many popular local authority comprehensives still determine admissions by catchment area. In some cities, you may live less than half a mile from a school and still not get a place. Parents with enough money can simply move into the right area where house prices are determined partly by proximity to the popular school. A comprehensive has arrived when it starts appearing in estate agents' windows. If all else fails, there is always the private sector.

As the better-off manipulate their way into the best schools, the gap between schools widens and educational inequality grows. In Scotland, where the shift away from local authority control of admissions happened earlier than in England, the result has been the creation of sink schools in the most deprived parts of cities. As pupils have drained away from the least popular schools, so have staff and resources. Research from Edinburgh University shows that, though some pupils have made small academic gains by attending "better" schools rather than their local one, the losses for those who attended the unpopular schools have been far greater.

The difficulties over school choice in this country have arisen for peculiarly British reasons. As Donald Hirsch, an educational consultant and author, points out: "Choice is an impossible aspiration if everyone chooses in the same way." And, in Britain, everyone does.

There is a clear hierarchy of schools: private, grammar, comprehensives with plenty of nice middle-class children, comprehensives with fewer nice middle-class children and so on. The trouble is that, while in Denmark and the Netherlands parents are happy to choose different sorts of school, in Britain everyone wants the same.

League tables, a centralising measure introduced by a Conservative government, are the enemy of enlightened parental choice. Their message to parents is clear: the aim of all schools must be to score as highly as possible in academic examinations across the board. There is no room for schools that excel at science or technology, at languages or sport, at drama or music, schools that are best for slow children or those that are best for bright ones. All that counts is the proportion of pupils getting five A-C grades at GCSE and the average A-level point score.

Ministers have tried hard to introduce a greater variety of schools but they have made little impact: the differences remain more apparent than real. In the Open University study, parents saw nothing to mark out grant- maintained schools from the rest. They chose them not because they had opted out but for the same reasons as they chose other schools: discipline, exam results, reputation which went back for decades.

Studies of City Technology Colleges, another arm of the Government's "diversity" policy, show that parents value them because they see them as a symbol of traditional academic excellence rather than because they offer a new, exciting technological education.

Even that classic weapon of choice, the voucher, has failed to increase choice for the under-fives. pounds 1,100 vouchers for all four-year-olds have not stimulated the market in private and voluntary nurseries. Instead, playgroups are closing as parents rush to put their children into state school reception classes which are sometimes ill-equipped to cope with them.

Labour is also offering diversity but shows little sign of producing it. On paper, the three types of school it would offer - local authority, voluntary-aided and foundation - look much of a muchness, give or take their names. There is talk of "specialist" schools but the details are unclear.

While there is no genuine diversity, parents who cannot get their children into the popular schools will continue to feel conned by the rhetoric of parental choice. A co-ordinated admissions policy that allocated places would even out some of the absurdities in places such as Bromley. But there would still be a lot of dissatisfied customers.

One researcher has suggested that the problem is so intractable that a lottery would be the best way to decide who goes where. While parents cling stubbornly to the view that all schools are unequal and governments fail to create schools which are truly diverse, the political promise of parental choice will remain largely unfulfilled.