Education Mar 5 2010

One in six children refused first choice of secondary school

One in six children this year failed to get a place at his or her preferred secondary school, according to today’s Guardian. At first glance this looks as though ‘school choice’ isn’t working in practice. But delve below the headline figures and it is clear that in many parts of the country over 90 % of parents do manage to get their children into their first choice of school. In the areas where choice is most problematic there is often a very active market in schools or a lot of selection ( only 54% of children in fully selective Buckinghamshire got their first choice of school and fewer than half of families in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which also has partially selective schools).

This isn’t really surprising. In areas with a lot of ‘diversity’ especially diversity of admissions criteria, the hierarchical ranking of schools presents parent with an impossible dilemma. Urged by successive governments to ‘do the best for their child’, many inevitably apply for the schools that appear to be the most successful in terms of exams results. These are usually the most selective schools, which take children with high prior attainment, and the hardest to get into. Result? Too many parents chasing too few places in some schools. Unhappiness all round.

The saddest feature of this situation is that the schools which appear to be the least desirable are often outstanding. Many admit who have not achieved as highly at primary school yet those children often make faster progress than their peers in some of the highly performing selective schools.Usually this is down to strong leadership, and teachers who have very high expectations of their pupils, regardless of their backgrounds. However if their intake is skewed, once other local selective schools have cream skimmed the brightest children,  they will inevitably fail to top the league tables

There is probably no reason why children from supportive home, especially if they have educated aspirant parents, shouldn’t flourish in these schools. That is certainly what author and teacher Francis Gilbert thinks. Elsewhere in the Guardian he argues that school choice is overrated.

But maybe the answer is to allow choice, but get rid of selection by faith, aptitude and ability so all schools have a more balanced intake. This is what most parents want. They could exercise choice not between schools that are as different as possible, but between schools that are broadly similar in terms of intake and results but might have a different ethos or specialism. The process of dismantling existing selection might take time. In a recent pamphlet, Comprehensive Future suggests how its could be done, starting with an end to the 11 plus, which still distorts secondary school admissions in a quarter of all education authorities.

None of the main political parties believes in reintroducing selection across the board but none will promise to get rid of it either. The Conservative plans for more free schools, which will be totally inependent of local authorities and which, as David Cameron promised yesterday, will give even more freedom over admissions may only make the situation worse.

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