Stuck in the traffic

9th June 1995 at 01:00
There is endless debate over the merits and demerits of the Government's parental choice policy but one thing is not in doubt. Allowing parents more say over which school their children attend has lengthened the morning traffic tailbacks in urban areas.

Particularly since the Greenwich judgment gave the green light to parents seeking school places in another local education authority, the roads have been clogged with cars ferrying bleary-eyed children to distant schools.

The congestion is most noticeable in parts of London, Hertfordshire and Surrey where there are pockets of highly regarded grant-maintained schools. In those areas, the breakfast-time school traffic is two-way as local children who have been unable to get into the GM schools have to be bussed out to their second, third, or even fourth choices.

Local authorities, and environmentalists, will therefore be hoping that the forthcoming Labour education policy paper will set out fairer and more rational guidelines on school admissions. But they should not expect too much from David Blunkett, who faces a difficult two-part task. He must specify how GM schools' admission procedures can be brought more into line with the LEAs' (abolition of GM schools is apparently not on the agenda) and he must attempt to restore some of the party's egalitarian credentials following the embarrassing publicity surrounding the Blairs' choice of school for their son, Euan. The first of these two problems, though complex, is the easier of the two to resolve. GM schools must be cajoled or coerced into adopting the same admissions timetable as LEAs so that they are processing applications and making offers in tandem. There should be one standard application form per LEA, admissions criteria must become much more homogeneous, and there must be much more liaison between GM schools, the Funding Agency for Schools, and local authorities. At present, LEAs such as Hertfordshire, which often have to take the GM "overspill", find it almost impossible to predict how many places they will have to provide.

One spin-off from a more clearly defined admissions system might be a reduction in the sky-high number of appeals by disgruntled parents (who often, unfairly, vent their frustration on LEAs when they are turned down by a GM school). Hertfordshire alone is dealing with 600 appeals a year, which means that a three-person panel and a council legal officer are tied up for approximately 100 days.

But there would be no guarantee that it would have this beneficial effect, for in Britain and other Western countries the phenomenon that Phillip Brown has characterised as "parentocracy" - where the wealth and wishes of parents are the most important factor in the allocation of school places - is in full bloom. As we predicted last week, Mr Blunkett has therefore rejected the Fabians' suggestion that secondaries should be required to have mixed-ability intakes. Most parents are against that and he knows it.

None the less, Labour will want to discourage the creeping introduction of selection by oversubscribed GM schools even though it is sometimes justified on the grounds that DFE Circular 693 insists that the criteria used to select a significant proportion of the entry should be objective.

Mr Blunkett will also want to make it easier for working-class and ethnic-minority children to attend schools in the middle-class neighbourhoods their families cannot afford to live in. Consigning them to "sink schools" only compounds their disadvantage. But it remains to be seen whether Labour has the stomach to challenge the parentocracy - this side of a general election.

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