Mothers and fathers strongly oppose letting popular schools select by ability. Will politicians - both Tory and Labour - take any notice? Michael Shaw reports
Parents have made a resounding plea for schools to take pupils who live nearest to them first. Their call, in a TES poll of 1,000 parents in England and Wales, is timely because the way schools select pupils is one of the few educational issues which separate the main political parties.
The Conservatives have criticised the existing situation where pupils sometimes need to live within a few hundred yards of a popular school to stand a chance of winning a place.
They say they would allow schools to admit whoever they liked and would be happy to see an increase in schools which selected by ability.
Labour says it wants to maintain a comprehensive system. However, in England it would allow existing grammar schools to continue and would expand the number of specialist schools and academies, which can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats would refuse to fund schools which selected any of their pupils by ability or aptitude, a move which would end all selection by specialists and grammar schools.
Plaid Cymru is committed to a community-based system of admissions and opposed to selection by ability. Lila Haines, head of the party's policy unit, said: "Normally a school serves the local community where it is sited."
However, that community could be more widely defined, depending on local circumstances. For example, a Welsh-medium or faith school is likely to draw parents and pupils from a wider geographical area than the immediate locality of the school.
Parents' views on school admissions seemed clear from the TES survey. Most said that oversubscribed schools should give priority to children who live nearby.
The second most popular approach was for schools to admit a cross-section of abilities, a banding system adopted by some of England's new city academies.
By far the least popular method - cited as the worst approach by 57 per cent of parents overall, and 70 per cent of those in Wales - was giving places to the cleverest children. Academic selection was even less popular than a lottery system.
A Welsh Assembly government spokeswoman said: "These comments just confirm the strength of the attachment to the principles of comprehensive education in Wales - which enables schools to build on individual subject strengths while offering non-selective, high-quality local education."
The idea of allocating places randomly, which has been floated by the Social Market Foundation, a centre-left think-tank, was seen as the worst approach by 22 per cent of all parents and the best by 17 per cent.
Both Labour and the Conservatives pledged this summer that they would be the party which gave parents greater choice. The Lib Dems, however, have warned that choice in education is over-rated and parents simply want a good school near them.
Asked how they would select a school, parents in Wales said the most important factor was the school's local reputation - considered "extremely important" by 32 per cent.
This was followed by the "behavioural background" of pupils at the school, its closeness to the family home, and its results. Less than a quarter rated their child's own preference as extremely important, compared to one in three English parents.
The school's performance in Estyn inspections ranked behind all four of these factors, with only one in 10 considering it significant. Siblings already attending the school was more important.
Although most parents felt Tony Blair had been distracted from education by the war in Iraq and terrorism, schools were seen as his chief domestic concern.
The proportion in England and Wales who said the Prime Minister's main priority had been education (15 per cent) was larger than those who said it was relations with the USA (10 per cent), health (5 per cent), the economy (3 per cent), Europe (3 per cent) or law and order (2 per cent).
Nine per cent suggested, unprompted, that his main worry had been his own political survival.
The poll, conducted by FDS International, was based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 800 parents of school-aged children in England and 200 in Wales.