Turned Away At The School Gates

10 June 2009
The Daily Telegraph
link to original

The parent sobbed openly at the reception of the secondary school where I teach: "But it’s not fair! You have to let her in!" Our secretary had to ask our caretakers to escort her off the premises. But she wasn’t surprised. Every year, she gets hundreds of calls from panic-stricken parents wanting to know why their child didn’t get into our over-subscribed comprehensive. Every year, she says the same thing: read the instructions in the admissions booklet very, very carefully. There’s no way she can explain such a complex process over the phone. If she did, she’d never go home.

I teach in a very popular, co-educational comprehensive in outer London which gains some of the best results in the country. In common with many similar institutions, every year, over 400 applicants don’t get an offer of a place. Much as we would like to take them, we have only one place for every three children applying. This year was no different: there were hundreds of bitterly disappointed families.
It’s little consolation, but they might comfort themselves with the knowledge that they are not alone. On National Offer Day earlier this week, where parents discovered whether their child had been successful in applying for a place at secondary school, one fifth of parents didn’t get their child into the school of their choice. In counties such as Kent, nearly a third of parents failed to get their preferred school.
It’s no wonder thousands of parents are furious. A report from the London School of Economics published this week suggests that the whole system is in a state of chaos, with schools flagrantly flouting the rules – asking parents for personal information including marital status, occupation and even children’s hobbies – and parents themselves being bamboozled by the arcane bureaucracy involved.

As a parent, teacher and writer who has researched this subject for years, I can only concur with the LSE’s report. The central problem is that there is no consistency in the system: the rules or "admissions criteria" by which schools admit their pupils differ from school to school. There are a host of different rules when applying to grammar schools, academies, faith-schools, specialist schools and plain-old bog standard comprehensives.

If you’re applying to a faith school, you usually have to prove you’ve attended church regularly for a number of years, live within the parish and have a glowing reference from your local vicar or priest. If you’re going for a specialist school, you’ll get preferential treatment if you can prove your child has an "aptitude" in that specialism. For example, schools that specialise in sports will often need to see references from coaches and team leaders. For grammar schools, you’ll need to pay for a private tutor so that your child will excel in the 11-plus exam. And if you’re going for a good local comp, you might have to consider selling your house and moving closer to the school – or lying about your address, which increasingly parents are doing.

But even moving near a good school can backfire. Take Katie, who moved house so she could be near the only popular school in her area, a faith-based school which specialised in languages. She thought she had everything covered – the attendance at church, the vicar’s references, the proof that her son has an aptitude for languages – only to find that in the year of her application her local authority switched to a lottery system: all the schools were allocated randomly. As a result, her application failed. She is now faced with the absurd prospect of having to drive her son miles away to a sink school, despite the fact that she lives next door to an excellent one. All her hard work was for nothing. "This Government has ruined my family’s life," she told me, trying to hold back the tears.

Time and again, conscientious parents who have fought so hard to get their children into good schools have had their best laid plans smashed by idiotic Labour legislation.

But it isn’t only the school admissions system that the Government has broken. It’s the exam system as well. Since they arrived in 1997, Labour apparatchiks have done nothing but interfere with exams. Each new initiative has made things worse. The Sats exams for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds have been mired in controversy from the start, with claims from parents and teachers that they are irrelevant and put pupils under unnecessary pressure.

The situation was so bad last summer, when swathes of Sats papers were lost and thousands denied their results, that the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, abandoned Sats for 14-year-olds and indicated that he was even considering scrapping the exam for all ages – a ghastly admission of defeat.

Even more seriously, A-levels and GCSEs have lost their credibility. The Government trumpets that the number of pupils gaining five A*-C grades at GCSE has risen from 44 per cent to 65 per cent since 1995, but any teacher knows this supposed improvement is nonsense. Recent research by Durham and Cambridge universities shows that the exams have become so dumbed down that these statistics are meaningless and that far from fostering real learning, the exam system has made our children less intelligent than they were in the 1970s, when far less was spent on education.

Meanwhile, the world education rankings run by the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – the only really trustworthy league table there is – shows Britain slipping from fourth to 14th for reading and from eighth to 24th for Maths. Put simply, most children from Europe and the Far East outperform our pupils every time – even in English.

Our exam system has become such a joke that many schools are giving up on it. Just this week, one of our top independent schools, Manchester Grammar, decided to abandon GCSEs, on the grounds that they were too easy, and to replace them with the International GCSE (IGCSE). In a letter to parents, the head poured scorn on the new GCSEs that the Government is introducing this September, observing that they threaten teachers’ abilities to do their jobs well: they are stuffed full of easy questions and coursework.

Quite why the Government is bringing back coursework when its own investigations have uncovered widespread cheating and plagiarism appears a mystery until you realise that coursework significantly boosts results. In other words, the revamp of GCSEs is a cynical ploy to manipulate the statistics. But as any experienced teacher knows, coursework has a corrupting effect upon pupils because it makes them believe they can cheat their way to the top.

A real educational apartheid is developing between the independent schools who are abandoning the government’s testing regime and the rest of us in the state sector who are lumbered with it. Clearly, children who take the wrong GCSEs haven’t a hope of getting into the top universities because they haven’t had the opportunity to gain respected qualifications.

One of the consequences of the Government decimating our exam system is that the process by which students apply for university has become farcical. The fact of the matter is that our best universities have lost faith in GCSEs and A-levels and have introduced their own tests. As a result, students have to fill in a barrage of forms, write a personal statement and take numerous A-level exams before gaining a place, and are also compelled to take exams set by the suspicious universities – particularly for popular courses such as medicine.

To make matters worse, the university admissions procedure is so haphazard that there is no uniformity over when the universities make their offers. So students are required to accept or reject an offer before they’ve heard back from all the places to which they have applied. Having been tested to the point of extinction, these poor students are frequently forced to sign up for inferior courses, even though they may have gained places on better ones. As with school admissions, one suspects this is a cynical ploy to make sure that the inferior universities are filled with students.

Our education system is failing on all counts: it is shockingly unfair, riddled with incompetence and corruption, and benefits no one but the bureaucrats. But while the pen-pushers enjoy enormous power and over-inflated wages, parents can see no end to their misery. Too many parents have watched helplessly as their children’s education has gone down the drain: too many children have endured mediocre schools, taken too many worthless GCSEs, and saddled themselves with crippling debts to gain worthless degrees that lead nowhere but the dole queue.

Despite the phoney propaganda the Government peddles, Labour’s incessant meddling, monstrous dumbing down and moronic self-righteousness have consigned our schools to the scrap heap. It pains me to say it, but our education system is as crisis-ridden as our banks.

your comment

Published in