Thursday, March 11, 2010

Welcome to the national lottery

If schools are so vital to the future of our children and our nation, it’s about time parents were given more say over where their kids are educated.

At the moment, thousands of places are doled out on an almost random basis because all the best schools are full.

But as the ridiculous annual fiasco of allocating school places took place again this week and the results dribbled in, it was clear up to half the applicants have lost out.

About 200,000 kids won’t be going to the secondary school of their choice next September.

We are constantly assured that parents have real choice in where their children are educated.

Unless you can afford the fees to go private, your options are severely limited. And few people can afford such fees.

Eton costs £28,851 a year. (The fees are advertised as £9,617 per half, which might lead you to think it’s under £20,000 a year until you discover that a “half” is actually a term and there are three terms in a year. So for the very rich, a half equals a third.)

Wolverhampton Grammar School will set you back £7,939 a year assuming your kids are clever enough to win a place.

There are state-funded grammar schools, of course. And very good they are too. That’s why most parents make them first choice if their children have any chance of scraping through the 11-plus.

But there aren’t nearly enough grammar schools and, scandalously, there won’t be any more under a Labour – or a Tory – Government.

So, for about 600,000 parents a year, school places are allocated according to some impenetrable criteria set by their local authority.

There are ways round the system. Favourite is, of course, buying a house in the catchment area of the school of your choice.

This won’t guarantee you a place but it helps. It means house prices can be excessively high in the vicinity of good schools, even in these hard times.

It means posh areas have posh schools and places are won according to the wealth of the pupils’ parents.

As a form of selection, it’s a lot more secure than having little Johnny try his hand at the 11-plus.

It’s been going on for years and is even more popular than grammar schools. But it leaves most parents scratching around looking for the second or third best options.

If you want a place at a faith school, you have to start going to church. I know a number of agnostic parents who go to church religiously so they can secure a coveted place at a successful, over-subscribed school.

You could try lying to win a place for your child, of course. It’s illegal but lots of parents get away with it.

The Government thinks about 3,500 parents cheat though only 1,100 get caught.

Scams include claiming to live at a relative’s house in a the catchment area of a good school or briefly renting a flat nearby.

Some parents will use the address of an empty property, a bogus post-code or an invented street name.

Couples even claim they’re getting divorced and one of them will move alone into the catchment area for a few weeks, just to win a place.

In theory, parents can be prosecuted for fraud. In reality they get away with it.

The demand for secondary school places is entirely predictable because local authorities know well in advance how many 11-year-olds they will have to cater for.

Yet every spring, they sift through their applications and announce to thousands of parents and children that they won’t be going to their choice school.

In Brighton, the places are allocated at random because the council thinks its fairer that way. But it’s a lottery everywhere.

Schools are allowed to be selective. They’re just not allowed to select on the ability of the pupils.

It’s ridiculous that schools which specialise in science or languages, say, are not allowed to recruit kids who are good at those subjects.

The inner cities would be much improved if there were specialist sports academies which were free to choose kids who were good at sport. That’s not allowed.

Instead, parents are subjected to a bureaucratic and patently unfair system for allocating places.

Successful schools are told how many places they can have. Poor, failing schools are given every help to fill places even though nobody wants to go there.

Why shouldn’t good schools be allowed to expand? Why not introduce real competition for pupils, allowing parents to shop around rather than make do with whatever they can get?

The Tories once proposed a voucher system which would allow parents to buy a place at the school of their choice.

Instead of being told where to go, parents would control the funding and that would give them the power. Overnight, schools would focus on the consumers –parents and children – rather than council bureaucrats.

Why not revive the idea?

Good schools would get a chance to earn more money and expand to meet demand. And if that meant poor schools closing down completely, so much the better.

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