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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 10:22 GMT
Treading the admissions minefield
By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News

You couldn't get much more of an explosive cocktail.

Parental anxiety about their children's welfare, house prices, social class, race, politics and religion.

School fence
Living the wrong side of a virtual boundary can limit your chances

All these ingredients are bubbling away below the surface in the arguments over school admissions.

And for parents trying to navigate their way through finding a secondary school, the admissions process can seem more like choosing a path across a minefield.

If it goes wrong, the consequences are serious. If it all goes smoothly, you'll pretend that there was never anything to worry about. What was all the fuss?

It's partly because so much about the school admissions process remains unspoken. We're not particularly honest about how we want the system to work.

They'd sooner have their teeth pulled without anaesthetic than send their offspring to the local sink estate school.

Why does a family definitely not want their child to go to a particular school?

"It's a school with lots of character where they've done an awful lot of work to turn things round, but we just feel it's not right for....."

You know what they're really saying. They'd sooner have their teeth pulled without anaesthetic than send their offspring to the local sink estate school.

And if they don't get into the local ex-grammar they'll be checking the train timetables and turning their youngsters into the so-called "railway children" commuting each day to schools miles away.

But who would ever criticise any parent for wanting the best for their child?

Except the public debate about admissions is couched in terms of promoting "choice" and "fairness" - when neither seem to have much connection with what really happens.

Fair evasion

We might want fairness as a general principle - and we might scoff at the elaborate attempts to cheat - but at the same time we want the type of fairness that delivers the right results.

Someone's child has to go to the least successful school in the city, but is it "fair" that it has to be ours?

It's more like a New Year's sale in the big department stores.

First of all there appears to be a well-organised queue, with everyone taking their turn, but the moment the doors open it's a pushing-and- shoving scramble for what's available.

If you lived in the same street as a hospital, should that give you priority for treatment over someone living further away?

Because what's fair about the so-called "golden halo" effect, where the streets encircling a sought-after school become more and more expensive as parents compete with their wallets to buy a house nearest to secure a place?

And then a couple of years later you'll meet these families at a party and they'll say that everyone should just go to their local school and it would be fairer for everyone, no lotteries, no selection, no funny business.

Unless that is you live next door to the sink estate when "fairness" means having the choice not to go to your local school.

And anyway, why should proximity be any kind of advantage when it comes to public services?

If you lived in the same street as a hospital, should that give you priority for treatment over someone living further away?

Selection by mortgage

And "choice"? You can choose any school you want - but the number of desirable choices which are realistically available is often extremely limited.

It's a menu where most of the tastiest dishes are always off.

It's also an impossible task for any politicians, local or national. They're obliged to keep pursuing the idea of a better system, when any mechanism devised can be accused of unfairness.

If places are given on proximity, then it polarises rich and poor, with "admission by mortgage" and with predictable outcomes for academic results.

If there's an attempt to deliberately contrive a social mix, then it will be attacked as social engineering, using children in an ideological experiment.

'Life-shaping calculations'

If you select on academic ability or any other kind of talent there will be claims that it stacks all the cards in favour of middle-class families.

And if you try to break up the status quo with a new type of school with its own admissions rules, such as the city academy, that too gets attacked as another form of backdoor selection.

Is a lottery really the most efficient way to find appropriate places for children's individual needs? And doesn't that obstruct the idea of parental choice?

Getting a school place is one of those raw nerves in people's lives, with all kinds of uncomfortable, below-the-radar distinctions being made.

Are the people at this school like us? Does it feel like our kind of place?

Maybe we want a fair system, but away from the glossy prospectuses and polite chat, some brutal and life-shaping calculations are being made.

Parents await school places news
01 Mar 07 |  Education

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