A lottery system is being used for school places in Brighton this year
By Sean Coughlan
More than half a million families in England are about to receive news on school places.
Take a deep breath and open the letter. Inside is the name of the secondary school where your child will be starting in September.
This is an Oscar envelope-opening ceremony in dressing gowns, carried out in kitchens across the country.
It's called an "offer", but the brown envelope being sent from the local authority doesn't contain any alternative options. It's one place in one school.
There will be waves of relief for some who get the place they wanted. For others there will be bitter disappointment.
Last year, about 100,000 families failed to get their first choice. Of those about 40,000 began the stressful - and usually unsuccessful - process of appealing against the decision.
Even if it's good news, this "admissions day" or "national offers day" isn't necessarily something that parents will feel like celebrating, at least in public. Apart from sensitivity to others' disappointment, there's a curious sense of powerlessness over the whole process.
Parents are allowed a school "preference" not a "choice"
Unlike exam results, the allocation of places isn't really something that's achieved by merit. Ending up in the catchment area of a sought-after school is usually either through good fortune or having a fortune.
Under the tighter-than-ever, fairer-than-fair admissions system, the basic requirement often still remains being able to buy a house opposite the school gates.
The introduction of new admissions devices, such as the lottery for school places in Brighton, adds even further to the sense of randomness, deliberately designed to obstruct the exercise of choice.
It would be hard to think of any other public service where stopping people getting what they want is seen as a desirable outcome.
But parents in the school admissions process have got used to the feeling that the customer is always wrong.
The government produces league tables illustrating the stark differences between schools. But if you make an effort to get into the high-achieving schools, you're a pushy parent.
How much school-place fairness can we afford?
And if you fail to get a place in these over-subscribed fortresses, then there's a lingering sense of letting down your children.
Throughout the long months of the admissions process parents are treated like over-demanding children who shouldn't be indulged.
As soon as the application cycle begins they're slapped down with the news that it's not school "choice", it's only a "preference".
And even within this limited "preference" parents get blamed. Last week, the chief schools adjudicator warned they were fuelling social segregation through the school admissions system.
Can you imagine any public figure solemnly warning that allowing people to choose where they bought a house was unacceptable because it was fuelling social division?
But when it comes to schools, the providers - the politicians, the local authorities, the regulators and the teachers' organisations - dominate how the debate is framed.
There are stories every year of admissions scams from over-ambitious parents - false addresses, temporary rented flats or a sudden interest in religion.
About 100,000 families didn't get their first-choice school last year
But do we ever ask why people go to such lengths to get into one school or to avoid another? Are we looking through the wrong end of the telescope?
Rather like the Mrs Merton question - what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels? - it's not that difficult to see the issue. England's school system, like house prices and incomes, is one of extremes.
That envelope can be a passport to a success story or to a disaster zone. It's no wonder that parents, knowing the scale of difference in results, will want to choose the best and to avoid the worst for their children.
If we were talking about hospital services rather than education, would we call a parent "pushy" if they wanted their child to be treated in a hospital with the best facilities? And what would we make of a policy for a fair allocation of botched operations?
It's going to be a big moment when that envelope is opened.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Hurrah! We got a place at a hugely over-subscribed girls-only school in Ware. We paid well over the odds for our house 2 years ago to ensure that we lived in the catchment area and it has worked. We have our first choice for our daughter! Hurrah!!!
Deborah, Ware, Hertfordshire
Like loads of other parents, I'm waiting to hear what my daughter is being 'offered' - but it puzzled me when she indicated her 'preferences' that there was no way to say WHY she would like to attend a particular school - convenient bus route, specialism in an area that interests her, friends going there, whatever. Fingers crossed...
PS: Fingers now uncrossed - she got her 1st preference :-)
Take an unfair system, and make it random. What a stupid solution to an age old problem. Much better to find a fairer system we have control of. Stream the schools themselves, then change the curriculum to suit kids. There's no point in mixing less able kids with clever ones.
Our local school places are largely decided based on proximity. Problem with that is the good schools are all in affluent areas and the poorly performing schools are in the more deprived areas. I am a council tenant with four very bright children - my eldest son is likely to have to go the the local 'Academy' school which has a very poor record rather than the brilliant boys school just because we can't afford to live in a better area. What's fair about that?
We want our son to go to a school just over the border in Cumbria - but we are in the wrong post code. We class ourselves as supportive parents and have encouraged our son in everything he does whether it be academic or sports, so why should we not be allowed to send our son to the school of our choice, one that will encourage both aspects. If that is what is known as being a pushy parent then we welcome the title.
Having been through the schol allocation process once, and 'looking forward' to repeating the process for the rest of my children, I realised that my concern is not about getting into the right school - it is about avoiding the small percentage of pupils who can ruin the life of the children who become their victims.
It is harsh and difficult to implement, but I would propose a zero-tolerance attitude and real punishment for pupils who bully, disrupt or vandalise. It probably isn't the best thing for the offender but I am thinking more of the victims' rights. And watch how even unpopular schools improve once they are not legally required to look after the disruptive children.
Russell, Milton Keynes, Bucks
Thanks for really stressing me out, everybody!
Paul, Awaiting place allocation, Kent
Would you put your child in a hostile environment, where bullying, abuse and ridicule are the norm, and the school inept at tackling the issues. Welcome to the inner city state schools. If you don't get the school you want it's tough! As parents we want to protect our children and, yes I would find God, rent a flat, camp outside the school gates if I though it would protect my children.
I've been having sleepless nights for weeks now. Sadly, I'm not a parent who can afford to go privately so my son's fate is in the hands of the gods...
Nicola Pierce, Beckenham, Kent
Have received said offer today. My son put first preference as local secondary, teachers have reassured him that he will def get a place as he has special needs and they are a feeder school... seems this is not the case. Local secondary is 1.5 mile from home, 2nd pref 3mile and 3rd pref 3.5 mile. Have chosen these as they are able to deal with son's needs and close to home so will be able to take him as teacher, senco and ed psych have advised not to let him travel alone. Have been offered school not on any pref which is 5.5 mile away... would rather home school him to be honest! Rang admissions and were told that although live in Bradford, as we pay council tax to Leeds (... not through choice!) he must go to a Leeds school! He/or me are not familiar with Leeds, there are no buses so will have to drive there ... not happy! Dreading breaking the news to him and his teacher! Wish me luck on appeal!
Stressed out mum, Bradford... or is it Leeds!
Here's a radical thought: an education system where all state schools provide an excellent standard of education with properly managed and funded resources. We shouldn't need to express a preference; there should be no significant differences, wherever you happen to live.
While I appreciate Andy's comments RE: radical thought and all schools providing a high standard education etc this is only part of the problem, there is the social backdrop to consider. There are many schools capable of providing such an education but they are constantly battling the anti-social and disruptive behavior of the few (or not so few in some schools). Typically this is as a result of the parents who couldn't care less about their children's education and prospects. Unfortunately it is the children and parents who do care that end up suffering.
This time last year my son was one of the highest performing children in his primary school class. After three appeals, he got into his fourth choice school. How am I supposed to feel about that? My child is not a guinea pig for the government's social engineering scheme. Choice what choice?
At last someone writes an article expressing the true frustration parents feel. Why is it that we¿re expected to accept a system designed to drag our children down to the lowest common denominator whilst we¿re told we have choice.
Some neigbours of ours have found the process so stressful that they have decided to move to the country. Surely there must be a better way.
Personally I think the problem is that, unlike the NHS which you use all your life, the education system is something you get interested in a few years before your kids need to get in, and then have no interest in after they've left. Consequently, you have no time to get involved and lobby for change before it hits you - and no interest in doing so after it passes. So it will always be in the hands of the teachers unions, the politicans and the bureaucrats. And none of them, clearly, have the best interests of children at heart.
Parents should realise that the biggest difference in their child's results comes from parental attitude to learning, not whether the school tops the league tables. Yes of course, kids will struggle in the worst of the inner-city schools but the majority of schools will allow a child with supportive parents to do well.
Geoff, I work in an inner city comprehensive. I'm a 'civilian' not a teacher, so I don't have a particular axe to grind. There are four other secondary school within a five minute walk of this one. Two of them on this same road. One of them you can see from most of this school's windows. Obviously all five schools have the same catchments area so the same social and demographic mix. We get 54% of our pupils 5 A-C grades. The school down the road only 17%. These statistics have been similar for the last seven years. So how good the school is, is important. Not only does it make a very tangible difference to your child's chances of academic success it also make a big difference to other non charted outcomes such as whether your child becomes pregnant or addicted to drugs! Good schools work, give them the credit they deserve, supportive/pushy parents are the bane of most educators' lives.
Stacey, East London
I agree with Geoff - our children attend the school which is deemed to be the least attractive in our town (albeit not in our opinion I hasten to add) - our eldest is taking her GCSEs this summer and is predicted straight As - she is bright but is also encouraged, supported and enabled by us at home to achieve. We promote a partnership between herself, the school and ourselves, all three with equal responsibilities which we all three take very seriously indeed. Sadly there are lots of youngsters out there who fail to achieve, mainly because their parents either can't or won't support their children's education, often treating the school as little more than a babysitting service. It isn't and shouldn't be solely the responsibility of the school to get results. You seldom see kids of diligent and supportive parents failing in even the lowest achieving schools if they have good parental support.
Anne, Taunton, Somerset
Sure, attitude to learning is what counts, but if your kids are rubbing up against kids (and parents) with the wrong attitude, then you'll end up with less than wonderful exam results.
Alan, Houghton Regis
I really hope it doesn't go to some ridiculous lottery in the future which would lead to a whole town of schoolchildren all commuting in opposite directions all over the town. I am lucky at the moment to live in a catchment of one of the better local schools. If my youngest ends up in a sink school because it's a lottery by then, I'd sell my soul on ebay to send her somewhere decent. Have taught in a sink school and was "educated" in one myself. The ridicule and bullying I experienced for wanting to learn affected my self-confidence and self-esteeem right into my thirties.
Bring back the 11+ for true equal opportunity. I went to a grammar school, son of a shipyard worker and was in classes with a wide and varied cross section of children from right across the borough. This is the way to increase social mobility and to give Britain the skilled and talented workforce it needs. Then support the Technical education properly to provide the less academic but no less bright with marketable skills for their future. Those who don't fall into either category at 11 can then be given focused attention to ensure that their needs are met disruptives should be excluded into secure day units until they reach a minimum level of achievement. As for school lotteries I suggest that the equipment be used to decide which educationalists to sack.
If only all these pushy parents put the same effort into campaigning for better schools and standards! This smacks of Nimby-ism. It's okay to have sub standard schools so long as its not my child that has to attend? Disgraceful.
So where are the government's 'green' leanings when it comes to schools. Children should be encouraged to attend local school, parents should be encouraged to try to work locally and if possible shop locally. Clear up the roads, pollute less and support a local sustainable community. One of my work colleagues lives a 2 min walk from a high school but sends his two children 11 miles (a car, a train and a bus) away !?
Steve, It's all very well encouraging your child to go to a local school if it's any good! My local school isn't fit to send my dog to, so when all my girls got accepted for the wonderful grammar school, which involves a car journey and a train ride, guess where they went!!
BTW, my car runs on veggie oil so would I be excused the car journey?
Hippy Mum, Lancashire
"Green"? Steve, do you have any children? I would quite happily send my son to the moon and back every day in one of those 4x4 (3.0 ltr engine), if it stop him from being bullied, ridiculed, stabbed, in one of these inner city state schools near me. And no I can't afford to go privately or, believe me I would.