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The hidden mechanics of choice

Reputation, reputation, reputation. Excusing Tony Blair's 3Es on education, that is the new mantra. A school's reputation has to be earned; once it is earned, it is often retained beyond the school's sell-by date; and once it is lost, sometimes unjustifiably, schools struggle to regain it.

This was well illustrated by the latest official figures which indicated that 23 per cent of children going into primary 1 in 2003-04 were the subject of placing requests, bypassing their local school. The assumption is that this reflects the increasingly poor standards of many schools, leading parents to vote with their feet. It could, of course, simply reflect the opposite side of the same coin: parents know - or think they know - which are the magnet schools with the best reputations and seek to opt their children in accordingly.

The raw statistics are none the less worth a closer look. The 23 per cent of parents who wanted their P1 children to go outside their catchment area is hardly the stuff of headlines: in 1997, when Labour came to power, the figure was 21 per cent - not exactly a seismic shift. More interestingly, the figure for P1 placing requests has been rising inexorably for almost 20 years: in 1986-87, it was 11 per cent. Does the year-on-year increase during these years of Conservative government similarly imply that there was a groundswell of disillusion with local schools?

Of course, there are innumerable reasons for the exercise of parent choice at the start of the primary years - ranging from a school's reputation to the desire to keep children from the same family together. But these figures disguise the true extent of parent choice. As the Scottish Tories have often argued, rightly, parents can buy into an attractive catchment area in order to purchase a desirable school place, a "placing bequest" which does not feature in the statistics. This is a lottery and it gives choice a bad name.

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