By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent
Parental choice - or "school choice" as it is known in the USA - could become a big issue at the next general election.
Dissatisfaction with school admissions is growing in England. The most recent official figures show almost 95,000 appeals were lodged in 2000/01. Newer figures are due out next month.
That level of appeals represents a lot of unhappiness. It is a 5% increase on the year before and a 75% increase since 1994-95.
Secondary schools appear to be the problem. Whereas appeals over failure to get into secondary schools have shot up, primary school appeals have been declining.
Almost 70,000 appeals related to secondary school. Assuming that most of these apply to the 600,000 or so pupils who transfer from primary to secondary each year, that is a pretty big proportion of dissatisfied customers. More than one in 10, in fact.
But the number of formal appeals may be only the tip of the problem: how many more parents are dissatisfied but either don't know how to appeal or regard it as futile (less than a third of appeals were successful)?
Either way, there is a big pool of disappointment over school choice - which the Conservatives are trying to tap.
Labour may be vulnerable on this. After all, Tony Blair's campaign to modernise the "bog-standard" comprehensive was intended to tackle parental dissatisfaction.
This may be one reason why the Conservatives are pinning high hopes on their "pupil passport" idea.
Surplus places rule
They have not yet given full details of how this will work but, although they don't like to use the word, it is essentially a "voucher" scheme.
According to the Conservative spokesman, Tim Collins, the "pupil passport" will carry a value equivalent to the cost of educating a child at a state school and parents will be able to use it at any state school or - with limitations - private school.
At a conference on school choice this week, he said the Conservatives would "scrap" the surplus places rule which, currently, restricts expansion at popular schools if other schools in the area have spare capacity.
The idea is to create a market in which the value of the "pupil passport" will fund expansion of popular schools or the creation of new ones
The idea is to create a market in which the value of the "pupil passport" will fund expansion of popular schools or the creation of new ones.
The voucher can be used at private schools providing they charge fees which are no higher than the value of the "passport".
At present, most independent schools charge far more than its likely value.
But the school choice conference, held by the think-tank Reform, suggested there could be private school operators ready to move into this market.
One company that is certainly watching developments closely is Global Education Management Systems (Gems) which runs a chain of international schools.
It owns two schools in the UK and opens a third in September. It says it will be offering different models of school for different income brackets.
The "cheaper" model (essentially with larger classes and less spectacular facilities) will cost around £6,000 a year, or half the fees at some of the more expensive independent schools.
This may still be a bit above the likely level of the "pupil passport" but the gap is not so wide and, if the market is big enough, there could be operators like Gems willing to take a punt on it.
The Reform conference also heard how a similar model for school choice is already operating in Sweden.
One of the speakers was Anders Hultin. He runs an education company called Kunskapsskolan which operates 22 private schools funded through a tax-funded voucher scheme in Sweden.
The Swedish scheme was introduced in 1992. The voucher is worth about £5,200 (the average cost per pupil at state schools) and can be used at any type of school, including private and religious schools.
Like the Tories' passport, the Swedish voucher cannot be "topped up" so it cannot be used to subsidise more expensive private schooling. But it has generated demand for new types of schools, responding to parental demand.
This might appeal to the government here whose current theme is the promotion of 'personalised' learning
According to a new study of school choice systems*, the first 10 years of the Swedish voucher scheme saw the number of private schools jump from 90 to 475. However they still only educate about 4% of all pupils.
According to Anders Hultin there is a long-term profit margin of around 5 - 7% for private schools operating in this market.
He also claims that parents like them because they offer a "personalised" education, as opposed to the "factory" approach of the state schools.
Incidentally, this might appeal to the government here whose current theme is the promotion of "personalised" learning.
"School choice" is now being tried in many parts of the world. In the USA, for example, there's been a voucher scheme in Milwaukee for over 10 years and a scheme has just been approved in Washington DC.
It has proved popular with some on the Left as it gives, for the first time, real choice to many poorer, inner-city parents.
However, there are still problems which every voucher scheme has to confront: should all parents be eligible, should "top-ups" be allowed, and how do you decide admissions at heavily over-subscribed schools?
Can academic or religious selection be compatible with a voucher scheme?
The latter point could be the real stumbling point in England where, in many areas, there is a strongly-perceived hierarchy of school types: independent, grammar, specialist and church schools, for example.
A closer look at the secondary school appeals shows they appear to come disproportionately from areas where there is just this sort of choice of school types.
Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and parts of outer London all have higher than average levels of appeals and each has grammar schools and/or selective private schools in the area or nearby.
Could the Tories' passport scheme be compatible with a system in which schools choose pupils rather than vice-versa?
In Sweden, admissions are decided on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. Children's names can be put down at birth.
So, the mechanism of school choice doesn't always guarantee that parents will get the school of their first preference.
The question is whether, overall, it encourages school provision to more closely match parental wishes.
Policy-makers have toyed, somewhat cautiously, with vouchers for many years.
Will the next election put them right at the heart of the political debate?
* Hands Up for School Choice by Tony Hockley and Daniel Nieto, Policy Exchange: www.policyexchange.org.uk.
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