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Tough choices ahead

Martin Rogers examines what the current review of schools admissions policy ought to deliver for children

GETTING their child into the right school can be a difficult and stressful experience for parents. And dissatisfied parents create difficult and stressful situations for ministers. But, until the Government achieves its goal of making every school a good school, to which most parents would be content to send their children, it will continue to face highly publicised dissatisfaction - which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by the introduction of greater diversity.

Parental expectation of "choice" has been allowed to exceed the reality of "preference". Even a former government whip, Greg Pope, observed during the Queen's Speech debate that admissions policy "is in an absolute mess" in many areas. But will the Department for Education and Skills's somewhat secretive review of existing admissions arrangements lead to the right outcome?

Parents' growing awareness that schools have a profound effect on the future lives of their pupils is welcome. Some schools are sought after far more than others. Some have particular admission requirements; others have arrangements clearly intended to enable them to admit a more favourable intake. Some children have particular needs, some parents have particular aspirations, and some are more aspiring than others on behalf of their children and are often better placed to have their aspirations met. The present system has allowed a growing polarisation of schools along social lines, and this must be reversed.

Legislation, unchanged in spirit since 1980, provides simply for parents "to express a preference" as to the school they wish their children to attend and, with only specific exceptions, places a duty on local education authorities and governing bodies to comply with that preference. There now appears to be some doubt about how this preference is being, and should be, expressed.

Current practice has become complex and varied, particularly since grant-maintained (now foundation) schools greatly increased the number of admission authorities. A recent survey shows that 44 per cent of parents applied to more than one admission authority. In uncoordinated systems, parents may apply to their own LEA; one or more neighbouring LEAs; andor the governing bodies of any (or all) of the sometimes many aided and foundation schools within reach - an obvious recipe for chaos.

Where more applications arise than there are children, some parents receive multiple offers, giving them a genuine choice; others receive a single offer, from a school which may have been their sole expressed preference; and some receive no offer from any school they have named.

The biggest headlines are generated when children are left with no offer when all of the available places in an LEA area are filled. But there will be other parents expressing resentment and anger, especially where they perceive major differences between the school they wanted and the one they got. Appeal numbers are growing in pressurised areas.

The code of practice aims to create a system which is clear, fair and objective, operating for the benefit of all children. This should apply both to schools' admissions criteria and to the administration of the system, and much work remains to be done before the former becomes universal.

It seems likely that proposed reforms will include a requirement that admission authorities co-ordinate arrangements, with common timetables and initial application forms. Parents should be enabled to express a clear first preference, but only one - which should be met wherever possible. The degree to which this is achieved will depend on how realistic the preference is in the local circumstances. To make forums effective, parents need the right to object to any unfavourable arrangements.

There may be a political price to pay for change, to the extent that it might result in a loosening of the grip on the system of more advantaged parents in favour of less advantaged children, but this Government has always claimed a willingness to make tough choices.

Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of The Education Network, an independent policy, research and information body to which 85 per cent of LEAs in England and Wales subscribe

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