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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July 2004, 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Tough choices on school places
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Diversity in schools can improve choice, says Barry Sheerman
Parents too often feel that school choice is a frustrating myth, says an education select committee report on secondary school admissions.

The findings come as both main political parties have made "choice" a touchstone for the next general election.

And it raises the question as to whether there can ever be sufficient choice when there are only a limited number of places in the most sought-after schools?

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP and committee chairman, says that unlimited choice in school places is not a realistic possibility.

Not least, because the way that one family exercises its choice is going to have an impact on the choices left for other children.

"For example, if parents choose for their children to have a single-sex education, then it means a lack of choice for other families wanting a school with a balance of genders," he says.

Chance and cheque books

He also acknowledges that for many parents, school choice can be a matter of chance and cheque books - depending on where people can afford to live and the quality of schools that are available locally.

If you're a middle class professional, with good contacts, good networks and the ability to buy a house in a catchment area, you have more choice
Barry Sheerman
chairman education select committee

"There isn't total choice. If you're very wealthy and you can choose a private option you have a great deal of choice.

"If you're a middle-class professional, with good contacts, good networks and the ability to buy a house in a catchment area, you have more choice," he says.

But if families are not so advantaged - or live in a rural area where there are few schools - then choice can be much more limited.

Nonetheless, Mr Sheerman says politicians have to respond to parental expectation that there should be choice.

"You can't wind back the reel - choice has become what people talk about," he says.

'Revolution in rising expectations'

We are in a consumer culture, and he says the education system faces a "revolution in rising expectations - where everything is expected to be delivered instantly".

And he says the government's drive for greater diversity in secondary schools - such as specialist schools and city academies - has helped give families a greater sense that there are options.

"The prime minister is right that diversity helps choice. If you're lucky enough to live in a place with a good range of quality schools, then there's a whole spectrum of choice."

School choice can then be a "mix rather than a myth", he says.

Another important question is about how to reduce the stress on families trying to navigate the admission systems for secondary schools, he says.

And the select committee's report has called for admissions rules to be mandatory rather than guidelines subject to local interpretation.

"People should be absolutely clear what the rules are and how they are implemented," he says. "You need some certainty, some way to reassure parents."

At present, parents can feel confused and stressed by a lack of clarity in admissions - and he says this can be fuelled by gossip and rumour among parents.

'Cradle of discontent'

He says that London in particular is "the great cradle of discontent. There's a whole tribal thing where everyone tells each other how awful the schools are - and that's not true, there are good, bad and average schools".

The capital, with its rollercoaster mix of heavily over-subscribed, high-performing schools and struggling "sink" schools, is going to be among the inner-city areas to see a growing number of "city academies".

These flagship schools, with more independence than mainstream state schools, are aimed at breaking the inner-city cycle of social deprivation and low educational achievement.

And Mr Sheerman gives an insight into the controversial increase in academies - saying that they were a direct result of Prime Minister Tony Blair's "obsession" with education.

According to Mr Sheerman, the prime minister's view is: "'I can't wait for children in the most deprived areas to get a chance'. Even though the select committee might say we need to have time to evaluate it he says 'I haven't got time for that, I'm going to have 200, I'm going to shake up what's on offer'."

Mr Blair's enthusiasm for education "as a way of introducing social progress" was "absolutely obsessive, he actually believes it passionately", said Mr Sheerman.

Such impatience might reflect the need to shift the public sector in the direction of its consumers - where from the outside, the report suggests, the education system can feel unresponsive to the rising expectations of parents.

While the government can pump more money into schools, the report suggests that families will have to be convinced that it is giving them a greater sense of control over their children's future.

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