Sunday 3 February 2008

Since when is school choice only for the middle classes?

The Sunday Times makes the absurd claim today that lotteries for school admissions are part of some great ideological battle between "the principle of choice established under the last Tory government and the social engineering that has come to permeate the new Labour educational agenda." Even by the admittedly diminished standards of the Sunday Times, this is ignorance of the highest order. The Conservatives gave parents the right to express a preference for a particular school. They did not give them the chance to insist on getting there. In fact, Labour has given them a greater chance of doing so, by expanding popular primary schools in its first term (an unrecognised side effect of the class size policy) and by making it easier for popular schools to expand (why else have grammar school places expanded since 1997?). And by exam and Ofsted standards, the number of good schools has expanded significantly, including in London, since 1997; academies are also raising the game in most inner cities.

However, there is always going to be a problem of oversubscription in a system of parental preference. Some popular academies have thousands of applicants for a few hundred places. And it is because Labour has retained (and, arguably, enhanced) the Tory system that it has had to consider what is fair for schools that are oversubscribed; the decisions remain for schools and local authorities. It cannot be a part of a school's responsibility to consider whether their policy pushes house prices up or down. Popular schools should consider what it the fairest way to allocate places once other criteria (perhaps sibling, children in care etc) are taken into account. Most still use distance. But most of those schools using random allocation or banding will hold some places for pupils living fairly close to the school. Beyond that, why should a pupil living two miles away be less able to attend the school than one living 1.5 miles away because one is within an arbitrary boundary, the other is not. Surely it is much better to keep a proportion of places aside which are open to all who apply, or to all who are able to get to the school. There is no more reason that this should discriminate against the middle classes than that it should advantage the poor - and Brighton saw one group of middle class parents happy, with another grumbling - unless we assume that only middle class people live near good schools. If so, if what we are then saying is that all families should at least a reasonable choice of schools, then what's wrong with that? Since when is school choice only for the middle classes?

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