Friday, 4 December 2009

Choice advice needs to improve

I've written a column for today's TES arguing that more needs to be done to ensure that disadvantaged parents get better independent advice on school choice:

The chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig made headlines last month when he proposed a crackdown on parents lying to get a place in a good school. And Schools Secretary Ed Balls was quick to propose fines and other sanctions for the wrongdoers.

But they both appeared to ignore an equally worrying issue, even though it also featured in the adjudicator's annual report: poor choice advice.

Disadvantaged families have been missing out on the help they need to get their preferred school. This failure to engage the families who need the most support has grown apparent under Labour, but it also risks undermining the Conservatives' plans to open the system up to new schools.

Choice advisers were one of three measures introduced in Tony Blair's controversial schools white paper in 2005 which were intended to ensure that, as new academies and trust schools were established, they were accessible to children from poorer homes. Along with greater flexibility in free school transport (since 2008, it applies to a choice of three schools, not just that deemed acceptable by the local authority) and an admissions code that encouraged random selection or lotteries and ability banding, choice advisers were meant to be advocates for those without the pushy elbows.

Without such measures, parents might fall foul not only of fraud by other families, but also the inbuilt unfairness of an admissions system that too often reflects the size of the family mortgage. I was Blair's adviser at the time, and we always recognised that choice advisers should be wholly independent of the local authority; ideally they should include people drawn from the communities that needed help, including the white working classes and some minority ethnic communities.

I had been particularly struck, for example, by the success of a young Somali woman graduate in persuading Muslim mothers in a Bristol school of the value of their daughters continuing in education after their GCSEs. And I'd spoken to parent support workers from the voluntary sector who made a real difference to how parents related to their children's education in east London.

The good news in Dr Craig's report is that all but one local authority now provide choice advice. Moreover, many have linked them to other parent or family information services, giving them a degree of independence, though limited funds. And local authorities believe the advisers are doing a good job helping parents navigate the applications timetable.

The bad news is that the service is too often poorly targeted. As Dr Craig says: "Some (local authorities) have found it difficult to prioritise the most 'needy' ... consequently, those who would benefit the most have not necessarily received the level of support that they otherwise might, and the choice advice service is not maximising its contribution to fairness."

To be fair, the best authorities do inform people of the service, placing leaflets in supermarkets, children's centres and doctors' surgeries. Some have public sessions at shopping centres, and many are happy to visit parents in their homes.

But the service is inevitably hampered by time constraints and anxieties that suggest many of the advisers are not being drawn from the communities themselves. A significant number would not attend an appeal hearing, fearing "blame" if parents lost their appeal. A separate analysis by academics from Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, suggests that where local authorities used arms-length parent partnerships to deliver choice advice, rather than basing them in existing admissions teams, they received "more in-depth support and guidance", often including "repeated home visits" and joint school visits. The report said that when choice advice is well targeted and staffed, it can play a "small but important part in making the admissions process fairer and easy to navigate".

Critics of choice advice - and school choice generally - say it is a poor substitute for making every school a good school. It isn't - we need to do both. But even if that happens, some schools will still be better than others, and may offer different strengths or facilities. And with the academies programme being extended and Conservative plans to allow new providers to develop new primary and secondary schools, poorer parents will need such support more than ever.

Of course, not all parents will want to share the angst of the metropolitan middle classes. The Sheffield researchers noted that for many favouring their local catchment school, "accessibility and their child's happiness were more important than the educational performance of schools". Choice advisers can only advise them of their options.

Yet, while the middle classes make the most of what choices are available to them - including opportunities to work with new providers where there is dissatisfaction with local schools - it is vital that such advice is available, impartially and from trusted sources. Once parents have the advice, they must get the support they need if they want to apply beyond their local school.

But so long as schools only offer places to those in an immediate catchment area, the choices for many others will remain limited. A real success of academies has been in attracting a genuine social mix, either with banding or lotteries or because they are located in poorer areas. Other good schools should be encouraged to open some of their places up to a wider cross-section of families.

So, Ed Balls should do more to encourage all authorities to follow best practice and encourage genuinely fairer admissions. His Tory shadow, Michael Gove, should stop pretending that without the right support and open admissions policies, his plans for a Swedish-style system will do much to improve social mobility. Unless politicians get admissions policies and advice right, the poorest pupils will only enjoy Hobson's choice.

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