Have faith in parents' priorities

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Parents think Tony Blair has not given education the priority he promised.

Meanwhile, many in education think Number 10 has given it rather too much attention for comfort.

Politicians of all parties should heed the clear messages from parents in the TES poll. Selection by ability is resoundingly rejected when parents are asked how secondary places should be allocated. "Priority for children living nearest" and "admitting a cross-section of pupils of different abilities" are the most popular ways of deciding who goes where.

The Conservatives certainly need to take this on board unless they want to be seen as the party for the minority who seek advantage for their child at the expense of others. But the poll suggests Labour could afford to be bolder, too, about balancing intakes. Its five-year plan promises not to extend the "cherry-picking" of pupils. But it remains to be seen whether its claim to have ensured "fair admissions" will in practice halt - let alone reverse - the social, religious and racial segregation of pupils created in urban schools by competition, selection and laissez-faire admissions policies.

This stratification of schools is both the cause and effect of much parental anxiety about their local schools, particularly in London where parents are noticeably choosier. They are inclined to favour faith schools and not simply because they trust in God: faith school parents are the group most likely also to have consulted the league tables. As the admissions adjudicator might have put it this week (page 15), the Lord helps those who help themselves.

But most parents in England and Wales ignore league tables and do not want faith schools. Preferences are much more influenced by the local reputation of a school and the background of its pupils. This suggests that neither improved exam results nor a religious foundation alone will make undersubscribed schools more acceptable. Only the perception that the school includes children from families of similar background and aspirations is likely to reassure parents.

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