TES survey reveals strong opposition to letting popular schools select by ability. But will the politicians 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 should select pupils is one of the few educational issues that divides the main political parties.
The Conservatives have criticised the existing situation where pupils often need to live within a few hundred yards of a popular school to stand a chance of winning a place. They would allow schools to admit who they liked and be happy to see an increase in schools which selected by ability.
Labour says it wants to maintain a comprehensive system. However, it would allow existing grammar schools to continue and 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 stop specialist schools from selecting any pupils by aptitude and set up an Office for Fair Access that would press grammar schools to rethink their admissions policies.
Parents' views on how popular schools should select pupils seemed clear from the TES survey. Most said that oversubscribed schools should give priority to children who lived nearby.
The second most popular approach was for schools to admit a cross-section of different abilities in a banding system, which has been adopted by some academies.
By far the least popular method - cited as the worst approach by 57 per cent of parents - was giving places to the cleverest children.
In fact selection by academic ability was even less popular than a lottery.
The idea of allocating places randomly, floated by the Social Market Foundation, a centre-left think-tank, was seen as the worst approach by 22 per cent and the best by 17 per cent.
Phil Collins, SMF director, said giving local children priority was unfair as rich parents could simply buy homes near good schools.
He said: "Under our system, parents would still get to choose a school, and still often choose the nearest one, but it would give pupils a chance of getting into schools in areas where their parents could not afford to live."
Philip Hunter, the chief schools' adjudicator, said he found the survey's findings encouraging. "Most schools use proximity as the tie-breaker when deciding how to allocate places and it is usually in the local authority's code of practice," he said. "It is reassuring that parents agree with that."
But the Conservatives said there was no wholly fair or popular way of distributing what they described as a rationed resource.
Tim Collins, the Tory education spokesman, said: "As long as good schools are not allowed to expand and new providers are not allowed within the state system, then more parents will be unhappy that they do not get the first choice for their children."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said his party's line appeared closest to what parents wanted. However, he said he personally was in favour of lotteries as these had worked well in some US states.
Labour and the Conservatives pledged this summer that they would be the party which gave parents greater choice. The Liberal Democrats, however, have warned that choice in education is overrated and parents simply want a good local school.
Asked how they would select a school, parents said that the most important factor was its reputation. This was followed by the "behaviour and background" of pupils, the school's location and their child's wishes.
The school's performance in league tables and inspections ranked behind all four of these factors, whether the child was in primary or secondary education.
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.
Fifteen per cent said the prime minister's main priority had been education, larger than those who said it had been 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 was 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 childrenin England and 200 in Wales