Editorial - Queue-barging is bound to cause offence, but habitual losers could do with a helping hand

3rd June 2011 at 01:00

One of the aims of last week's review of school admissions was to bring clarity to a complex process. Unfortunately, confusion reigned. While The Times claimed that a ban on lotteries would be a "boost for the better off", the Telegraph was wailing that "middle class children could miss out" as poor pupils and, horror of horrors, the children of school "cooks, cleaners and caretakers" leapfrogged them in the admissions queue.

We shouldn't be surprised. Angst over school places is a predictable consequence of the British preoccupation with class. And any proposal that risks turning accustomed winners into novel losers is guaranteed to generate outrage. Which is not to say the Government shouldn't be applauded for trying to make an imperfect system as fair as it can be. But will its proposals make a bad situation better?

Take its suggestion that oversubscribed schools should be allowed to prioritise places for staff. The intention is a good one: to give teachers an added stake in the performance of their school. But in practice it will cement the attraction of already popular schools and do nothing to induce teachers to send their children or themselves to struggling ones. Why would they?

The proposal to allow academies and free schools to propel poor pupils to the front of the admissions queue is more interesting. To put a premium on disadvantage - to make poverty pay - clearly has the potential to make the admissions system fairer for those parents not blessed with sharp elbows. To restrict the policy to the Government's favourite schools, however, risks making a good proposal unnecessarily partisan. It would be fairer to allow all schools to give poor pupils preferential access.

The most contentious suggestion of all - allowing popular schools to expand - seems, at first glance, sensible. More pupils should benefit from an extension of the best. Nor is it the case that the increased competition would necessarily make life harder for struggling schools. Recent research from the London School of Economics not only found that academies raised pupil performance in their own schools but in neighbouring schools, too. However, there is a great deal of difference between "popular" and "good". A school can be popular because it panders to social prejudice, or because its reputation owes a lot to past and faded glories. Conversely, challenging schools that improve rapidly take time to become popular. It would be a perverse policy that favoured the undeservedly popular at the expense of the truly excellent.

In the absence of a perfect admissions system, perhaps the best service any Government can perform is to strive for the least worst option and to be honest: "Not all parents will have a choice. Not all of you will be winners. But as a Government we have a duty to advance most those who routinely lose ..."


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