Parental choice has long been a feature of Conservative education policy and is valued by Labour, judging by the actions of some of its prominent members. Hardly a week passes without discussion in the London-based media, possibly under the assumption that the London situation is replicated throughout the rest of the country.
The situation in London is unique, however. Not only are the various options more keenly considered, options do actually exist there, and the public transport that enables choices to be exercised. Euan Blair might have some distance to travel to school, but he can at least do it. Such possibilities are not open to the majority of the population who live outside the capital.
Underlying assumptions in France are quite different. There is a general acceptance that the publicly-funded school system is valuable and should be supported. Indeed in its promotion of Republican values, the school is seen as a central feature of the state, the protector of freedom and the rights of the individual.
There are certainly severe social problems which some schools have to face, there are frequent attempts to adjust the curriculum to meet the perceived needs of learners, and reforms in the past decade have loosened central government control, but there is little sense of a rejection of the state system and its monolithic character. Parental choice is permitted but on a much more limited basis than in Britain.
If there is fundamentally no difference between schools' provision, why should choice be necessary? The curriculum is broadly the same, uniform is not legal, religious education and observance in state schools is banned, headteachers have no power over academic matters or appointing staff, parent-teacher associations are nationally organised and all significant regulations are made at national or regional level.
Yet for September 1996, the parents of almost one in four pupils transferring from primary school to a coll ge in Paris asked for a place in a school which was in a different catchment area. Almost half had their request accepted. Whereas in Britain, individual schools are often able to exercise their own policies for admissions, the French system is scrupulously impersonal. Republican notions of equality would have it no other way, and a strict system of priorities is applied.
All participation by headteachers has been removed, and the entire process is carried out by officials at the academie (the regional educational headquarters). The criteria used are ranked in order and applied to the list of applications for each school until the number of places available is filled.
According to figures published in a recent issue of Liberation, the most frequently cited reason by parents was a brother or sister already at the coll ge or the lycee attached to it. Other reasons included the nearness of home, an unusual foreign language (Russian or Chinese), a European education section with increased foreign language provision, and location of parents' work. A small number of teachers asked for the child to be placed in the school in which they taught.
Just as London is not Britain, Paris is not France. Bounded by the line of the boulevard peripherique, the city area is quite small and middle-class, and by no means houses the majority of the population of greater Paris. The most glaring social problems of some suburbs are well beyond the city limits.
Nevertheless there are schools which have reputations (warranted or unjust) for being better or problematic. Apart from the nationally prestigious establishments which have traditionally drawn pupils from favoured catchments, there are also popular notions about the status of certain schools. A coll ge which shares a site with a lycee seems to be perceived as better than one which does not. There are certainly suspicions that some of the parental preferences stem from the wish to protect their children from contact with the lower orders. One teacher in a school in the comfortable 16th arrondissement, quoted in Liberation, suggests that its lack of popularity among some local parents is because "we are guilty of teaching servants' children".
In the context of British assumptions about the role of parental choice, it is instructive to consider the French rationale for their situation. Supported by parent-teacher associations, the academie is able to state that catchment areas, allied to a rigorously and transparently applied set of criteria for determining priority cases if there are requests for a different school, are the best guarantee of justice and of maintaining the system for the benefit of all.
Richard Aplin is a lecturer in education at the University of Leicester School of Education