Middle classes want to be cherry-picked

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Let us celebrate the new school admissions code, put out for consultation by the Department for Education and Skills this month, as a triumph for parliamentary democracy. Ministers had to agree to a tougher code, making it more difficult for schools to cherry-pick the brightest and best behaved children, when their Education Bill ran into trouble with MPs earlier this year.

Now the Government has indeed made a determined effort to stamp out covert selection. A great many loopholes are closed. Interviews with parents and pupils are banned, as are written tests. Even attendance at an open evening must not be used as a filtering device. Nor can primary and nursery school reports be used to take account of "past behaviour, attitude or achievement".

But I wonder how middle-class parents will respond to the results of the new code. We know that some will stop at nothing to get their children into a favoured school. Smart property companies now buy up flats near "good"

schools and rent them out annually to parents trying to get places.

Parents can still get their children into faith schools - which, as a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research has just shown, take less than their fair share of pupils on free meals - by making a hefty donation to the relevant church or by dragging their child along to services every Sunday for a month or two.

For the past 25 years, ministers of all political hues have presented the school system to parents as an opportunity to secure competitive advantage for their children. Parents were told, in last year's election campaign, that they would get yet more choice of schools.

The new admissions code may indeed widen opportunities for poorer families, but the effect, and the intention, is to restrict choice for the middle classes. The prohibitions on taking account of applicants' social, financial, ethnic or academic backgrounds will make it harder for middle-class parents to get the schools they want.

I welcome this development. In time, it may create more of what parents perceive as "good" schools because fewer will have the preponderance of low-achieving and deprived children that depresses results. Moreover, the growth of specialist schools offers a degree of genuine diversity, while the establishment of city academies may give a gloss to schools in areas that the middle classes would previously have avoided.

But this is not what new Labour promised. Its mission was to give "consumers" the same standards of service in the public sector as they expect in the private. This, it judged, was the only way to persuade the middle classes to use public services and pay taxes for them.

Have ministers thought through the implications? The principle behind private sector services is that you get what you pay for, or, more precisely, what the supplier can make a profit out of. Private sector services are by nature discriminatory.

Nobody suggests that Fortnum and Mason should lower its prices so that it receives a balanced intake of shoppers. Nor does anybody propose to prohibit the practice of charging higher vehicle premiums to people who live in poor urban areas. Unfairness is inherent to private sector services.

The principle in the public sector, however, is that everyone is treated on equal terms, regardless of income, social status or even general pushiness.

Fairness is all.

New Labour fails to give this sufficient emphasis. It has created an expectation among the middle classes that they will get the same deferential, individualised service from teachers and doctors as they get from solicitors and accountants. It has implied that NHS appointments should be arranged and treatments customised to suit the convenience of patients, and that children's education should be tailored to their parents' whims.

But it is an iron law of economics that all resources must be rationed. If not by price, then in some other way. With state services, free at the point of use, this sometimes means not getting what you want when you want it. If people are led to believe otherwise, they become more dissatisfied and frustrated than ever. That is why I fear the new admissions code, despite its excellent intentions, could store up big trouble for the Government.

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