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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 01:25 GMT
The problem with school 'choice'
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
So now we have a new event in England's school calendar: National Offers Day.

The day when children receive their school allocations looks set to rival the August exam results days for emotion, disappointment, blame and media-hyped panic.

This was the first year when all councils co-ordinated their offers. Until now, education authorities and schools have made their allocations at different times.

The temperature was turned up when one newspaper's front-page headline claimed 200,000 children would miss out on their first choice of school.

They could not possibly know that statistic was right. No one collects these figures. It was an estimate based on a snapshot of selected urban areas.

The opening sentence of the story contained the give-away: an "estimated" 200,000 children "may" miss out on their first choice.

It is those little words - like "may" or "could" - that you have to watch out for in journalism.

Meanwhile excitement was cranked up further by news that Brighton and Hove council was to use "random allocation", or a lottery system, as part of its school admissions system.

Fundamental debate

Some commentators failed to make clear that Brighton was not actually planning to determine its allocations entirely by a lottery.

The lottery only comes into play after other, more significant, criteria have been used, namely: catchment area, "exceptional circumstances" (such as special educational needs), and the so-called sibling rule - whether a brother or sister attends a school already.

The real essence of the Brighton story was not the use of the lottery as a tie-breaker but the decision to shift from a system based on home to school distance, to designated catchment areas.

It is a decision that goes to the heart of the fundamental debate about how to allocate school places.

To see how differently these systems work, you need only compare England and Scotland.

In England, the 1988 Education Reform Act created a system of "open enrolment" based on parental preference (often, misleadingly, summarised as a "choice" system).

This meant that parents were free to apply to any school they liked. In theory they could apply to schools anywhere in the country, with neither distance nor council boundaries any barrier.

Schools could only reject applicants if they were physically full.

Estate agents

So catchment areas were replaced by a system in which the main factor determining allocations was distance from front door to school gate.

Parents in the know used the new league tables and inspection reports to apply for what they saw as the best schools and, sometimes, moved house in order to improve their chances of getting in.

Scotland meanwhile has largely stuck with the system that used to exist in England and is more common in the rest of Europe. This involves the local council allocating places on the basis of a designated catchment area.

It is worth just explaining here that a "catchment area" is an artificially designated geographical location (not necessarily based on simple radius from the school) within which pupils are directed to a particular school.

Estate agents often refer to a school's "catchment area" when what they really mean is that a house is sufficiently close to a school to ensure that it is likely to receive a place on the home-school distance criteria.

Very different results

Under the Scottish catchment area system, it is still possible for parents to request a particular school. Yet this is rare.

In 2004-05, just over one in 10 parents of children applying to secondary school made a so-called "placing request'. Virtually all were granted their wish.

So what is the effect of the different English and Scottish systems?

In Scotland the great majority of parents simply accept the local council's choice of school and the few who do not usually get their way.

In 2004-05 just 360 parents of pupils applying to the first year of Scottish secondary school (S1) took their case to appeal. That was just 0.6% of all applications.

In England, the proportion of parents lodging an appeal against secondary school admissions was 9.3%.

Even after some later withdrew their appeal, almost 7% went all the way through to an appeal hearing.

In short, the level of dissatisfaction is much higher in England, the country with the more developed school "choice" system.

Diversity

Now, of course, you could draw all sorts of conclusions from this. You might argue that the Scots are too complacent and simply accept the school they are given.

Or perhaps that all schools in Scotland are good - or at least that they are not of such variable quality as in England.

Equally, you might argue that parents in England are dissatisfied because they have been given a stronger illusion of choice that has not always lived up to expectations.

There is another possible explanation of the difference between England and Scotland in this respect.

The school system south of the border has grown much more diverse over the past 20 years.

England has a dizzying variety of secondary schools in addition to community comprehensives and faith schools.

These include: foundation schools, CTCs, academies, specialist schools, grammar schools and, shortly, trust schools. Scotland has none of this variety.

Traffic

While there are independent schools in both countries, only about 4% of Scottish pupils attend them. That is about half the proportion in England.

So, there is a lot less choice in Scotland, at least between different types of school.

At the other extreme from the Scottish system is London. In the capital a very high proportion of pupils travel across the city to attend independent schools. Several areas have selective state schools and there are many other school types.

A quarter of all pupils in London attend a school in a different local authority area from the one in which they live.

The London traffic on school days shows just how much "choice" has taken place. Yet appeals are at their highest in London.

There have been many academic studies of the impact of "school choice". Some argue it increases social segregation, others say it reduces it. Unfortunately, there is no consensus to help guide policymakers.

One thing seems to be clear, though: the more choice you offer, the greater the level of dissatisfaction.

That does not mean that parents would willingly give up their chance to state a preference or to have a menu of different schools to select from.

But there are consequences of letting the choice genie out of the bottle and, whichever system you use - home-school distance, catchment area, lottery, or banding - there will always be relieved "winners" and upset "losers".

The key, of course, is to try to protect the children from feeling like winners and losers.


SEE ALSO
Parents await school places news
01 Mar 07 |  Education
How many get first school choice?
28 Feb 07 |  Education
School ballots 'no help to poor'
02 Mar 07 |  Education

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