In two weeks’ time families all over the country will be going through a particular English ritual – the national secondary school offer day. Teachwire reports
Parents of year 6 pupils will be informed of the school to which their child has been allocated. I choose that word allocate carefully because it won’t necessarily be the school they have chosen, or even expressed a strong preference for.
The papers will duly report percentages of parents getting children into their first and second choice schools and we will almost certainly see a regional variation in these figures, paradoxically showing that where the market in different types of schools is most active (which is supposed to give parents more choice), fewer parents will have got the schools they wanted.
Coincidentally this year marks the 30th anniversary of the legislation that explicitly sanctioned parent choice as a priority for government policy. The 1988 Education Act, sometimes known as the ‘Baker Act’ after Kenneth, now Lord, Baker who was secretary of state for Education at the time, introduced the idea of ‘open enrolment’.
Winners and losers
At the moment I am knee deep in probing how effective those policies were for a book about the 1988 Act and what followed – and there is much to say on the subject, so watch this space. But on the simple issue of what happens on March 1st there are several obvious points that illustrate the flaws in the original concept.
The first is that schools can’t or won’t expand and contract at will, and they certainly aren’t in a position to do it between March 1st and the start of the autumn term. The second is that parents don’t necessarily exercise choice rationally and choose the most successful schools.
Other factors come into play; distance, intake, the choices of friends, the look and feel of a school. A local school can be valued even if not that successful. As Lord Baker admitted to me before Christmas: “It is quite hard to close schools down.”
Finally, and crucially, if school supply isn’t elastic enough to accommodate all comers, there will be rationing of places, hence the winners and losers.
But the English school system is also unique in that there are a number of other ways that schools can ‘select’ their pupils: by faith, academic ability, aptitude, feeder schools and arbitrary catchment areas that may not reflect the location of the school.
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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