At 7am tomorrow we will find out which secondary school our daughter will go to next year. The closer the moment gets the more I am convinced that the whole concept of parental choice in schools is a callous joke. I don’t feel I have any choice in which school R goes to and it’s an illusion to suggest that I do. I can express a preference, but I can’t make a choice for the obvious reason that not everyone can go to the one local school which is regularly lauded by OfSTED as one of the best in the country and which is consequently first choice for every parent in the area. (This isn’t leafy Surrey, by the way, it’s gritty east London which somehow makes the achievement even more remarkable) As a friend of mine said yesterday, the only way you can be sure your child will go to Morpeth is if you gave birth in the playground and never moved outside it.
Schools Ministers have for years been arguing that parents want yet more choice in education. The theory seems to be that if schools are pitted against each other in some kind of Darwinian fight for survival, with parents’ votes as the mark of survival, then they will pull their fingers out and standards will rise. This is evidently not true and runs contrary to another strand of government policy which is about getting schools to collaborate to share resources and expertise.
The continued stress on choice and competition also flies in the face of all of the research, which repeatedly says that parents just want government to make every school good, so that every parent feels happy to send their child to whichever is nearest. Make every school a Morpeth and all parents will have their choice. Make it illegal to discriminate against children on the grounds of their parents’ religion (or lack of it) and at least everyone is in with a chance of going to a school they live close to. As Deborah Orr said in a recent article about schools lotteries: The worst schools are not compelled to improve because of parental choice. They just end up populated by the children of the parents whose choices are fewest. The choice is illusory – and I’ll go on believing that it’s a poor way to go about allocating places even if we do get into our first choice.