Passport out of postcode polarisation?

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Spring is in the air and for once it is the Conservatives who are making the political weather. Tim Yeo, the shadow education secretary, has put forward proposals to abolish the "proximity rule" which currently allows oversubscribed schools to select only pupils living within a defined distance or catchment area.

The new policy puts some flesh on the bones of the Tory pupil passports scheme which aims to give parents a voucher equivalent to the state funding for their child, that they can use at the state school of their choice.

Under the proposals, popular schools would be allowed to grow to meet demand.

Mr Yeo deserves praise for trying to solve a problem which has long undermined the case for neighbourhood comprehensives in our major cities, namely selection by postcode. This enables parents who can afford it to buy a house in the catchment area of a high-achieving school, while leaving the poor to play musical chairs with more "bog-standard" schools. Often the result is polarisation, leaving poorer children disadvantaged and the affluent cocooned in exclusive laagers of privilege.

The principle that pupils and parents should always be able to get a place in the state school of their choice is laudable. But is it achievable? As Education Secretary Charles Clarke said this week, popular schools cannot just invent places that are not there. The expansion of popular schools would be expensive and, if there is no limit on places, could lead to many being overwhelmed.

In any case, such a policy would bring only marginal improvements in school choice. As last week's TES poll showed, 93 per cent of parents already send their children to their first choice school and only 4 per cent are unhappy with the schools their children attend.

To improve on those high satisfaction levels we need to ensure there are good quality state schools - and good teaching - in every neighbourhood.

Shunting children to middle-class enclaves many miles away is not the answer.

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