End the lottery of secondary places

20th February 1998 at 00:00
As an appeal committee chairman I've long had reservations about the allocation of secondary school places. More recently as a Year 6 parent I experienced sleepless nights, cured only with acceptance by our runaway first choice school.

Taking my son to open evenings was the worst aspect. It's impossible to expect a 10-year-old to understand why he won't necessarily get a place at the school he likes best. In our area schools are either very popular or extremely unpopular and applying for anywhere other than the nearest if you can't claim priority admission often results in being offered a school at the bottom of the unwritten pecking order.

Logically I cannot criticise the strugglers. They are coping with diverse problems yet opening up new horizons for their intake. On the other hand, like most parents, we wanted a school which produces good GCSE results rather than one which adds value but records few exam passes.

The current admissions process is a nightmare for all parties. It is unduly protracted for families who do not immediately receive their chosen school.

While popular schools attract many applicants and may be happy to accept more than their standard intake despite the implications for teacher workload, the less popular struggle with the financial implications of falling rolls.

For appeals committees there are wider issues involved when parents cite a keen and motivated child and an underperforming school. In a non-selective system, judgments on ability have no place.

Combining my personal and professional observations of the current admissions system I am convinced it is time to institute a managed system to determine intakes. This would ensure that, as far as possible, all schools receive a genuinely comprehensive spread of ability and eliminate many of the stresses experienced by applicants.

Sensitive management of intakes could be effected without the disadvantages of specific testing or putting any child's achievement on public record. All primary schools collect data on their pupils. In Year 6 this could be used to assign each child to a band and identify aptitudes. Collating this assessment with addresses and parental preferences could provide every school with an intake which spanned the ability spectrum and every child with an accessible school.

Several benefits should accrue. More parents would have confidence in their local school to deliver quality education if they knew the intake always included very able pupils. Parents from all socio-economic groups who believe the local school does not attract motivated applicants currently move heaven and earth to find somewhere more acceptable. For some this means paying fees, irrespective of the sacrifices involved. For others moving house, suddenly attending church or invoking a, possibly questionable, priority admission category elsewhere are popular and legal stratagems which contribute to intakes becoming polarised.

If intakes were normally distributed, results should be also. Large deviations from the norm would indicate either underperforming or highly achieving schools. If any school failed to receive a normally distributed intake or achieve the expected results it should be possible to determine whether schools were underperforming or whether wider social factors were affecting attainment.

Requiring all schools to achieve results which fairly reflected the talents of a diverse intake would also, over time, impact on the ability of independent schools to cream off desirable pupils. If more parents of keen or bright children were confident that they would fulfil their potential in the state system they would opt not to be burdened with fees. This would provide more group stimulus for the equally bright children whose families choose, or have no realistic alternative to whatever the system provides.

If we are serious about helping all schools to achieve highly and to remove the stress endured by parents during the protracted admissions process we should level the playing field. One method of doing this would be to place admissions firmly in the hands of a single authority for all except denominational schools and to eliminate all unjustifiable priority admission categories.

Concerted action to rebuild confidence in some schools is needed. Responsible management of intakes could be part of the process.

The writer chairs an education appeals committee in north-west England

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