Tony Blair's promise that parents will be offered school choice is inappropriate and counterproductive, an influential committee of MPs said this week.
In a hard-hitting report, the education select committee said the Government's policy of greater diversity in secondary education misses the point and that a greater range of schools is likely to increase parental dissatisfaction rather than decrease it.
The report also called for the immediate abolition of ballots on the future of grammar schools, which it said were unfair to opponents of selection and a waste of taxpayers' money. However, while not advocating the abolition of grammars, it said partial selection and selection by aptitude should be scrapped. The MPs called for a national debate on selection.
The report from the all-party committee said the "rhetoric of parents choosing schools. has been transformed into schools choosing parents" by the Government's failure to ensure fairness, consistency and clarity in school admissions.
In its five-year strategy, published earlier this month, the Government pledged to expand choice by making all secondaries specialists and allowing successful schools to expand.
It promised 200 new flagship academies to raise achievement in deprived areas and intends to make it easier for secondaries to take control of their own admissions.
But MPs said: "Parents seek quality above diversity; the existence of an excellent but distant or over-subscribed specialist school is no comfort to parents who deem the only school available to them not good enough. Current policy aims to reward those schools that are academically successful and in so doing penalises those that are not. To penalise low-performing schools is to penalise the pupils in those schools, a negative and counterproductive strategy."
The report said that the procedures for secondary admissions fail many parents and pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Ministers should ensure that every school is acceptable to its local parents, an aim undermined by the present system.
Those in urban areas were forced to apply for schools without any idea of the likely result, the MPs said, while better-off parents had a better chance of getting what they want by buying a home close to a good school.
The present system allows oversubscribed foundation and faith (voluntary aided) schools to operate a form of "unofficial selection". This leaves other schools locked in a "cycle of despair and rejection" as they struggle to cope with large numbers of difficult pupils.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:
"The range of schools proposed by the Government will benefit those who can fight their way through a mass of varying admissions schemes, yet leaves those most in need of support to flounder."
The report said that the Government should make admission rules statutory and give the schools' adjudicator greater powers to investigate schools and local authorities.
Tim Collins, Conservative education spokesman, said: "This report, by a Labour-dominated select committee, rightly shows that parents are upset, misled, let down and betrayed by the present system of largely theoretical choice."