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Too many admissions obstacles

It is 50 years since Charles de Gaulle made his famous remark about the difficulty of uniting a country with 265 different cheeses. But the comment must still strike a chord with local education officers who are ostensibly in charge of school-place planning. How can England's local education authorities plan sensibly when in some counties there are up to 200 other admissions authorities in the form of quasi-independent state schools?

This week's refreshingly-frank report from the Office for Standards in Education and Audit Commission suggests some solutions to this apparently intractable problem, and says councils "must make up in influence what they lack in control". But as the report acknowledges, the admissions difficulties afflicting many urban areas cannot be resolved by a single agency. Some of the promised government reforms may help. In future, fewer children will get multiple offers of places while others get none. There will also be a single date on which all secondary school place offers are made.

Nevertheless, it is hard to be as upbeat about admissions as Charles Clarke is. Parents, church schools and the courts all stand in the path of admissions that are fair to all and which produce viable schools.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin is not the only London parent prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get his children into the "right" school.

Many church schools have maintained restrictive admissions policies that display little Christian charity (even a Yorkshire vicar failed to get his son into his local church school this year). The courts also keep ramming spanners in the works. The Greenwich judgment of 1990, for example, rendered LEAs almost powerless to prevent cross-border movement of pupils.

But the Government must also accept some blame for defects in the admissions system. It pursues popular policies such as expanding successful schools and establishing city academies which can distort and polarise school intakes. Like the Conservative party, it wants to give parents more freedom of choice without reducing schools' control over which children they admit. Have they all forgotten that politics is supposed to be the art of the possible?

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