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The unpopularity of parental choice

02 November 2006

THE EDUCATION BILL, soon to be published, has caused great anxiety among critics, particularly Labour MPs, who see a pass being sold. The focus of their anxiety (apart from the fact that the plans are being supported by the Conservatives) appears to be admissions policy. Yet more efforts were made this week to convince critics that local authorities would not be required to hand the decision-making over to maverick headteachers, who could pick and choose whom they wished. There will now be an absolute ban on the admissions interview, a line long supported by the Church of England, which is fed up that interviews about religious affiliation are often misconstrued.

We hope that the Government continues to resist any introduction of social quotas. Besides adding yet another layer of form-filling to overburdened heads (see Dennis Richards’s complaint ), it would be an unnecessary imposition on heads, the great majority of whom diligently follow admissions criteria designed to be as inclusive as possible. It is encouraging to see the figures produced by the C of E’s chief education officer, Canon Hall ( News, 3 February, and Education, ), which suggest that the social mix in church schools is close to the national average. It would be good to see the back of the supposition that the success of church schools is built on the unfair packing of classrooms by the articulate middle-classes.

Of course, outside the independent sector, the concept of parental choice is largely illusionary, depending on arbitrary geographical factors. Most parents know which are the best schools in their area, even without the help of published league tables, and these are quickly oversubscribed. This would remain the case even if the method of judging schools became more reasonable — concentrating more on testing, scores for improving pupils’ performance rather than exam results. Yet even a firm place would not guarantee parents the environment they wish for their child: a charismatic head, a succession of inspiring subject teachers, and encouragement of kind, hardworking peers. None of these can ever be chosen in advance.

Parental choice begins to work once a school place has been secured. Heads rely on the pool of committed, involved parents of their existing pupils for support and encouragement, not only by keeping their children in line but also by contributing to the learning, and, in the case of church schools, the spiritual ethos of the place. In return, the staff have to demonstrate true accountability. The effect of this is seen most clearly in its absence in failing schools, where uninterested, critical parents contribute to the lowering of morale and the exodus of talented staff. The Education Bill is likely to duck important issues, such as the ridiculous exam system; but, in supporting a stronger, uncluttered relationship between schools and parents, it looks to be on the right lines.

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