Say no to choice ...

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Janet Dobson and Anthony Seldon lock horns over the issue of parents choosing schools

Parents living in and around Holborn in central London are campaigning for a new secondary school. A similar campaign was run by local parents (including me) a generation ago, but without success. The fact that people in this area have felt so strongly for so long about wanting a local school must mystify the choice and diversity gurus and calls into question some of the assumptions that drive the current education Bill.

Readers who visit this area to go to the British Museum or Covent Garden or Great Ormond Street Hospital may be surprised to learn that families with children reside here. In fact, there are significant numbers living in private and council housing, mansion flats and flats built for the working classes in the 19th century and homes above shops, restaurants and pubs.

The population is exceedingly mixed in terms of social background and ethnicity.

On the face of it, these families have a wonderful choice of secondary schools. Holborn is at the hub of a city-wide network of bus routes and Underground lines. There are three main railway stations just up the road.

Using public transport, children can get to dozens of schools with no trouble at all and bus travel is free.

To the armchair theorists, this must seem the perfect place for parents to exercise choice and find a school that is right for their child.

The trouble is, children living in this area have priority at none. At the start of Year 6, no child knows where they will be in Year 7. Parents may find a school they like, but there is no guarantee of a place. In good years, most get their first preference. In bad years, many don't. The whole business of secondary transfer is fraught with anxiety.

The outcome for every child is always uncertain. One child gets into a particular school but their best friend doesn't. Groups of children who wanted to transfer to the same school are split up and dispersed.

Having "choice advisers" as the Government is proposing would not make much difference. They could advise against unrealistic choices. But what is a realistic choice? Many Holborn children apply to the nearest community school but cannot be certain of getting in because of the density of the population that surrounds it. And entry to church schools, other than the least popular, is not a foregone conclusion even for the faithful.

It is hardly surprising that parents want a local school which is accessible to every local child irrespective of social background or religion. They want to end the annual stress of the transfer process and the feeling of powerlessness it engenders. They see the continuity of primary school friendships as valuable in itself and likely to help children settle in to their new school. And they know that primary-secondary links are beneficial educationally.

They also believe it would be beneficial if parent and community networks which exist in local primaries could transfer with the children to support their secondary school. And for reasons of both health and safety, they would prefer that their 11-year-olds did not have to travel long distances in the crush of London transport.

Holborn parents are not alone. Every other parent campaign reported in the media appears to have had the aim of creating a local community school, though some have had to accept new models for what are essentially schools serving local communities.

In addition, there have been some interesting research findings. A vast report published in 2001 entitled "Parents' experiences of the process of choosing a secondary school", commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, concluded:

"Taking the relevant factors together, a presumption that parents value choice per se is questionable."

Parents were concerned about whether the outcomes of the admission process could be predicted or whether they were uncertain and not in the control of the parent.

All this makes one wonder why the education Bill is imposing a duty on local education authorities to exercise their powers with a view to securing diversity and greater choice in the provision of schools. In some circumstances, it may be wholly appropriate to establish a new type of school. But why are authorities having diversity thrust upon them, irrespective of local needs or wishes?

It is worth remembering that parents who migrate out of our cities in pursuit of the rural idyll and better secondary education often have little or no school choice in their new locality. Lack of choice doesn't keep them awake at night because they think their child will flourish in the school to which they have automatic access.

Choice is not everyone's priority. Many parents value certainty, continuity and community. They simply want a good local school.

Janet Dobson is a senior research fellow at University College LondonA conference entitled "A good local school for every child - will the education Bill deliver?" is taking place at the Institute of Education in London on March 25 . www.yourform.netgoodlocalschool

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