By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
Is banding of pupils by ability the answer?
School choice is a wonderful thing. When it works. Yet there are few things as frustrating as having a good school nearby which your child cannot get into.
We have a very good sixth-from college near us. Earlier this year we applied for a place for Autumn 2006 for our daughter.
Despite applying within a few days of the first possible date for applications we were too late. She is on a waiting list but has little chance of a place.
It is our fault. Applications are treated on a first-come-first-served basis. We were not sufficiently in the know to realise it was vital at this very popular college to get the forms in within the first 24 to 48 hours.
We kick ourselves. We should have known better. But how fair is a first-come-first-served system?
What about the children of parents who do not follow these things closely? What about those who are not part of the middle-class grapevine? And do those children whose parents fail to take a close interest lose out?
This week another school admissions system was in the news. A new City Academy is adopting a lottery, or 'random allocation', for its heavily oversubscribed admissions.
The idea is to avoid social segregation. The middle-classes tend to be astute at getting access to the best local schools, whether it is by attending church regularly, playing the entry requirements, or moving house. You cannot blame them.
Pulling names out of a hat overcomes the advantage some pupils have over others. Of course, it can also mean that some students do not get into their nearest school.
Sir Cyril Taylor, who now heads the new Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, says he has 'a lot of sympathy' with the lottery idea, although he says it can also be rather 'disheartening' for parents.
He has witnessed how it works in the USA where it does deliver a pupil intake that is representative of the community.
However he points out that even the lottery is not fair on all children, as they still rely on their parents entering the lottery to have a chance of getting into the school.
School choice was a recurring theme at last week's Labour Party conference. The Prime Minister stressed the importance of choice in public services but acknowledged that access to good schools was not equally shared.
He argued that the wealthy have always had choice: 'If you have the money, you buy better'.
The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, took a similar tack: access to some schools 'was open only to those who could afford to buy an expensive house next to a good school'.
The forthcoming government White Paper on schools will address this unfairness.
In practice, though, what can be done? And should governments try to level the playing field in this way?
This government talks about promoting the autonomy of schools and the freedom of choice of parents.
Is this compatible with measures that, in the interests of social equity, might limit the freedom of schools to set their own admissions criteria?
Can you redress the balance in favour of pupils from families which are not so good at playing the admissions game while still emphasising parental choice?
Politically, it would be a bold move for any government to adopt policies that would deprive the middle-classes of their current advantage in gaining access to good schools.
A more cautious approach would involve trying to level the playing field by offering better information and guidance to parents and by removing obstacles, such as the cost of transport to more distant schools, by subsidising school buses.
One suggestion has been that the government would create 'choice advisers' to help families find the best route through the school choice maze.
This is a model already employed in the NHS to help patients find the best treatment available.
Yet would this be enough? What about the children whose parents are just not interested: will they continue to come last in the game of school choice?
A lottery system might be the answer. It would end the house-price premium in the catchment areas of good schools. But you would be hard-pushed to call it 'parental choice'.
The best schools are often oversubscribed
All other entrance criteria have their drawbacks. Distance between home and school encourages 'selection by mortgage'.
A siblings policy disadvantages the only child. An entrance test favours those who can afford extra tuition. Parental interviews favour the articulate.
A linked primary school policy simply pushes the issue down from age of 11 to five.
There is one other approach that might yet appear in the government's plans: banding. This approach was used years ago by the now defunct Inner London Education Authority and is in use at some City Academies and City Technology Colleges.
It involves placing applicants into ability bands on the basis of non-verbal reasoning tests. The school then admits a representative proportion from each band. In this way the intake is genuinely comprehensive.
The crunch issue with banding is whether it should reflect the ability range of just those who have applied to the school or of the whole local area. The government is currently trying to clarify the legal position on this.
If the forthcoming White Paper does advocate banding, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust will recommend it to its members.
It could be the biggest change to admissions policies since the 11-plus was abandoned in most English local education authorities.
However the concept of banding will further underline the limitations of parental choice.
It does not so much reduce choice as redistribute it. The more able students may find it harder to get into a popular and successful school, while some of the less able may find it easier.
Fairness and parental choice are never the easiest of bedfellows.
In the end - as one head teachers' leader commented this week - parental choice will always be something of a 'mirage'.