Why it could never be you...

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Parental choice has become a lottery without prizes, says Susannah Kirkman

During the latest controversy over selection versus comprehensives, little thought seems to have been given to the poor parent, whose much-vaunted "choice" is being rapidly eroded by selection of all kinds.

In our town the season of "Poole paranoia"- as one mother calls it - is here again; the agonised discussions over the dinner table, the anxious huddles at the school gate - which selection procedure shall we gamble on? Choice has been reduced to a lottery, as there is only one school where every child is guaranteed a place, regardless of religion or ability, and then only if you put it as first choice.

This is the large grant-maintained high school, where creaming off by the grammar schools means only 28 per cent of pupils get five GCSEs with grades A to C. League tables aren't everything, but Tony Blair and Harriet Harman aren't the only parents who are reluctant to send their children to a school where pupils who achieve good or average results form a small minority.

How about the smaller church school, St Edward's, with GCSE results well above the average and a "lovely atmosphere"? No problem, so long as the parents are nominal Catholics - 75 per cent of the intake is drawn from Catholic primaries. Anglican parents must prove that they are committed church-goers - Brownie leaders and flower arrangers score extra points here. Attending church twice a month doesn't count, as one mother with a son already at the school recently discovered when her daughter was refused a place. And the odds are stacked heavily against Methodists, Baptists and other practising non-conformists.

Well they can always try the grant-maintained grammar schools. At the girls' grammar, all the pupils achieve at least five GCSEs with grades A to C. These results beat all the local independent schools hollow and at least the 12-plus selects the children, rather than the parents.

The snag here is that the feeder middle schools offer no advice on children's suitability for a highly-academic education, nor any indication whether they will pass the entrance test. Here, the well-informed middle-class parents score well; they know which local private tutors will coach the children in the test techniques and can indicate whether a pass is likely.

The odds are high; only the top 18 per cent will get a place. Finding another secondary school could be tricky for those who "fail"; naturally enough, St Edward's won't consider anyone who has taken the 12-plus.

So the wily parent, acting on advice from the girls' grammar, will pretend that their child is not sitting the exam, which takes place on a Saturday.

But hold on - there is one secret route, known to only a few pushy parents, which could guarantee a place at Corfe Hills, the prestigious comprehensive outside the town boundaries. Children who fail the 12-plus could apply to join one of the middle schools feeding into Corfe Hills for Year 8. Unlike the Poole middle schools, with an 8 to 12 age range, they cater for 9 to 13-year-olds and they will have some spaces after a few of their Year 7 children have departed for the grammar schools.

Meanwhile Poole's new unitary authority is set to take over control of education in 1997. Will it close this loop-hole by standardising the confusing differences in admission ages throughout the area?

To avoid the aggravation, it's not surprising that those parents who can afford to are voting with their feet. Moving house could guarantee a place at Corfe Hills. Or could it? With grant-maintained status now under discussion at this school, what are the guarantees that it will remain a neighbourhood comprehensive? You could spend thousands moving only to discover that your children still couldn't get in.

The continual changes in admissions' policies make it impossible for parents to plan ahead. In any case, many of the options - and the places - are only open to the children of confident, knowledgeable and relatively affluent middle-class parents.

Susannah Kirkman is a governor at a Dorset primary school and has three children

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