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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 13:43 GMT
Secondary schools selection and admissions
Has Labour signalled the end of the comprehensive - and would there be more choice or chaos if schools could set their own admissions policies?
Education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies - and Westminster MPs have little influence over education policy in these parts of the United Kingdom. For more information see our full guide to devolution.
All the parties say they want an appropriate school place for every pupil and to give parents the most choice.
But no party is likely to be able to reverse the sharp increase in disputes over admissions as parents struggle to find places in over-subscribed successful schools.
It is said that, in practice, school choice has meant that schools are choosing the pupils, rather than parents and their children choosing the school.
This is very much an English problem - and some would say an urban English problem, because in rural areas the question of school choice often does not apply - with perhaps only one secondary school available.
These elections to the House of Commons will not set education policy in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, but the parties will set out their stalls on education.
And in Northern Ireland, selection is one of the biggest education issues, as a fully-selective grammar school system is still in place, with admissions being determined by passing or failing an 11-plus test.
There is a review of the system in progress, but the abolition or retention of grammars will not be affected by this election.
In Scotland and Wales, state secondary schools are fully comprehensive - and even if future Westminster administrations sought to allow greater selection, Scottish and Welsh education systems would not be expected to follow.
The "diversification" of the comprehensive system, such as specialist schools, is limited to England and there are no grammar schools in either Scotland or Wales - and again any plans for their re-introduction would not apply outside England.
But in metropolitan areas of England, the process of finding a place and negotiating the admissions process can have a far-reaching impact on a child's education.
And evidence of this is the rush for places in the most desirable institutions - with 10 or 12 applications for every place in a secondary school not unusual. And in primary schools, reductions in class sizes has increased pressure on places, with no scope for "fitting in" a few more pupils.
There is no absolute limit on the number of applications.
Since parents can seek places in other local authorities, there can be large numbers of families involved in this chase for places, with complex chains of applications, offers, places held and waiting lists.
At present, a large majority of schools facing such an overload of applications allocate places on criteria such as how close pupils live to the school, whether they have siblings already at the school or whether there are any special educational reasons for giving a place.
And if pupils are applying to specialist schools, 10% of places can be allocated to pupils showing a particular aptitude for the school's specialism.
The Labour Party wants to extend the number of specialist schools to almost half the secondary sector, arguing that they improve results more quickly than other mainstream comprehensives.
Specialist schools receive extra money to develop advanced teaching in a particular field, such as science, technology, modern languages or the arts.
But they have been criticised by opponents who accuse them of bringing in "back-door selection" and of marking the end of the comprehensive system.
There are still areas in England which have kept a grammar school system - including Kent and Buckinghamshire - and there are individual schools which have retained grammar status.
And while their existence would be more secure under a Conservative government, they would not be likely to disappear quickly under Labour.
When in government, Labour introduced a rather complex system of parental ballots on the future of grammars, but so far only one vote has been held and there are no other ballots imminent.
The most radical proposal for changing school admissions policy is from the Conservatives, who under their "free school" plans would allow every individual school to set its own rules for who it accepts.
This would allow schools to select by tests, interview or however they chose to allocate places.
There would also be the removal of limits on how popular schools could expand, regardless of the impact on neighbouring schools, and any local authority regulations on places would be scrapped.
The Conservatives say that this free market in places would allow schools to respond to the needs of parents, much as the private school sector operates.
But both Labour and Liberal Democrats say this would be a recipe for chaos, making the finding of places even more stressful for parents and children, with the prospect of pupils having to sit different tests and meet different criteria wherever they applied.
There are also questions about how such a system would find places for the least able and most difficult pupils, with schools under no obligation to accept them.
At present, such a model is blocked by central and local government. While selection exists in a relatively small number of grammar schools and to a limited extent in "partially selective" and specialist schools, the majority of state school places are non-selective.
There are also limits to how much schools can increase their intake when there are vacant places at other local schools.
Although on a national level the political exchanges on education will be about issues such as reforming the comprehensive system or free schools, at a local level education debates will often be heated up by parental worries about admissions and the availability of places in schools.
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