Last week's report on school admissions from the House of Commons education and skills select committee came to no fewer than 58 conclusions about necessary improvements. While reviewing the detail of the oversubscription criteria and code of practice which govern admissions, it also took side swipes at some key government policies, including the philosophy of choice and the increase of selection by ability or aptitude.
It is particularly scathing of the convoluted procedure of local ballots required to challenge the right of grammar schools to select pupils.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke has promised to carefully consider "this important report". If he does, then he cannot avoid the conclusion that it is time to end selection in secondary schools.
The report rightly pointed out that 11-plus transfer is often very stressful for parents. The code of practice, which provides guidance on admissions when schools are oversubscribed, is only advisory and is ineffectual as a means of regulating the system. The select committee's recommendation that the code should be re-cast to make it statutory is an obvious solution. If each local authority is also required to devise a single admissions system for local schools, as the committee suggests, then the ability of schools to continue with criteria which are indirectly discriminatory on race or class grounds would be substantially constrained (although the report avoids the difficult question of the rights of faith schools).
Those of us concerned with equity in education also applaud the robust defence of the priority given to looked-after children in the committee's standard criteria for oversubscription, and its approach to casual admissions and appeals which would mean all schools in an area sharing the load.
Yet underneath the excellent detailed recommendations there remains an ambiguity at the heart of policy which the select committee avoids. Should parental preference alone be the key criterion in admissions? The law says it is, the committee supports it, and it is a foundation of the notion of a market in schools which has underpinned policy for nearly two decades. But the truth is that trying to administer school places as a market has basic problems. There is no price mechanism to balance supply and demand.
Proposals to expand popular schools are impractical or very expensive and new schools cannot guarantee quality. Product information is necessarily historical and cannot predict future quality. There is just no reliable evidence that a system based on parental choice has any effect on overall attainment. Most importantly, it relies on the mistaken idea that education is a matter for parents alone. We won't get admissions procedures right until we accept that schools are a major public service and community resource, vital for the development of social cohesion as well as skilled individuals. Parents should have rights, but they are not the only ones.
The local community, the state - and the young people themselves - should all have a say in how school places are allocated. The select committee recognised the right of children to be consulted and stressed the importance of "local schools for local children," but avoided balancing these rights against parental preference.
This problem also applies if places at oversubscribed schools are allocated on the basis of lottery, a system which is apparently fair, but only if a school is viewed as merely a factory for producing qualified individuals.
The weakness becomes clear when thinking about the geographical unit for applications. The Social Market Foundation recently proposed to allow parents to apply to any school in the country and require oversubscribed schools to allocate places by lottery.
Under this system, schools most oversubscribed would become even more so, thus depriving local parents of school places. And what about the responsibility of the school to be a focus for the local community? Even if the lottery were to be based on the LEA, or a district within shire counties, such a system would ignore the important policy benefits of local schools for local pupils. Neither would it reduce parental stress and dissatisfaction; those losing out in ballots would still be left with schools they didn't want.
As part of a study of London schools last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research proposed a different approach which balances the interests of all the constituencies. It is based on groups of schools, be they called federations, collegiates or collaboratives. It has been fascinating to observe the dramatic growth of co-operation between schools as soon as the Government signalled its approval, and all sorts of projects are now under way.
What if parents exercised their choice of a group of schools, rather than a single one? The needs and wishes of the child and the interests of the community and state could then all be exercised in the process of allocating pupils to schools within the group. Criteria such as easy travel, keeping or splitting friendship groups, meeting special needs, socially balancing the intakes, relating the school to its community and having regard to parental faith could all be taken into account. With the school group being the unit of admissions, it would be easier for pupils to move between schools to meet their needs, and exclusions could be prevented.
The collaboration agenda, appropriately explained, could have the effect of reducing parental paranoia in areas where it exists about "getting the best school". Parents need to be less concerned about which schools their children attend and more concerned about the learning experiences on offer.
Summer debate 15
Martin Johnson is a research fellow in education at the IPPR