School choice – an overrated concept

1 March 2010
The Guardian
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As a teacher for 20 years, I can tell parents that with their support children can flourish anywhere

The agony of waiting is over. Yesterday was national offer day, when parents learnt if their children had got into their favoured secondary schools. Unfortunately, as many as 100,000 children and their families have been bitterly disappointed.

As a teacher who has taught at various comprehensives for 20 years, I know that means a lot of tears and pain. I have seen parents who hit the bottle and come raging on to the school premises, demanding that the school takes their child; parents who do nothing but pester the school secretaries on the phone or by email; and parents who have just given up in despair, despite the fact that they have good grounds to appeal.

The main things parents should remember is not to descend into a great panic, and to review their situation dispassionately. What many don’t grasp is that if they fail to meet the admissions criteria of a school, children won’t get in, no matter how wonderful. The government has a strict admissions code that means schools have little room for manoeuvre: they can no longer just pick pupils they like the look of.

Parents are often confused by the wildly different criteria of various schools. Grammars can select pupils based on 11-plus exams, faith schools can choose from the relevant religious backgrounds, and specialist schools can select 10% of their intake according to a child’s aptitude in that specialism. To make things more complicated, some boroughs have banding and lottery systems whereby pupils are either selected by ability “band”, or randomly allocated one of the schools in the pot.

I’ve only really scratched the surface here: parents thinking of appealing should contact an expert. But don’t waste money on lawyers. The Advisory Centre for Education provides an excellent free service; and many boroughs have advisers who can help. Ultimately, however, only a quarter of appeals are successful, with the vast majority of parents having to accept that their child will not go to their favoured school.

True choice is a myth. All parents want are good local schools, but it appears no political party is interested in delivering them. Both Conservatives and Labour seem obsessed with in effect privatising the system by persuading companies, religious organisations and charities to run the show. The US has been doing this for two decades, and the most significant research shows that it doesn’t work: on average, children at state-run schools do significantly better than their counterparts at taxpayer-funded but privately run schools.

Perhaps even more worryingly, the concept of school choice has led to deep societal fractures, as the biggest ever study of charter schools in 16 states by Stanford’s Centre for Research on Education Outcomes found last year. Not only were many of these schools failing their pupils, it was proving difficult to shut them down on the grounds of poor academic performance. Nonetheless, Michael Gove, the Conservative education spokesman, is intent upon a mass privatisation of our schools, and Labour is hot on his heels. Last week Gordon Brown announced that he wants to give parents the power to vote headteachers out of their jobs and hire in private companies to run failing schools.

Yet the evidence shows that parents are tremendously supportive of schools, even when they are failing, as Charles Desforges established in a thorough research review conducted in 2003. His findings should reassure parents who were disappointed yesterday. They showed that if a parent talks regularly to their child, has high expectations and believes in the value of education, then that child will succeed – even in a school with a poor reputation.


  1. I agree with you views. I’m from inner city B.ham, my child didn’t get any of the preferences on the form and instead was given a place at a school 4 miles away in a area of perdominately white population, and where the community is not affluent in education. I am a British Pakistani and I have no problem with anyones skin colour, but how the communites are today, this is a real problem. My child will be vunerable to racism and bullying because he will be sent to a school with there is less ethnic background children, this is my big worry and concern. The whole system of school preference has greated this big divide.

    from Nasrat Shaheen
  2. Thanks for your comment. I think most parents want good local schools, which have good teachers and where there is good discipline. The current system isn’t delivering this in my view: we need to return back to the basics.

    from francisgilbert

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