Parental ‘choice’ in education has created the worst of all worlds

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Parental choice is in a fragile state. Almost 30 years on from the “great” Education Reform Act, which ushered in the idea that choice would raise standards and satisfy all, barely a day goes by without a reminder of what a flimsy notion this is.

Most shocking was the story about the academy trust that decided to bus pupils with special needs or disabilities from the high-achieving school at which they had been given a place, to a less illustrious one in the same chain. Although the pupils would apparently still be on the original school’s roll this wasn’t quite what the parents had chosen.

Then there was the entertaining spat between Lord Waldegrave, the provost (and former pupil) of Eton college, and the cabinet office minister, Matt Hancock, over the government’s “social mobility” agenda.

I am not sure why Lord Waldegrave, who has threatened to leave the Conservative party, is so unhappy with the idea that the civil service, and possibly other employers, should be allowed to ask applicants about their schooling. Given the tendency of the establishment to recruit in its own image, it might only reinforce the supremacy of the privately educated graduates.

But the row exposes two things. The fact that the government feels obliged to act means that, after almost three decades, the market in schools has done nothing to promote equality. Parents with knowhow and money still win. And there is logic in Waldegrave’s position. What is the point of offering choice and then getting angry if parents exercise it to secure their own children a competitive advantage? That was the whole point surely?

Finally there are the ongoing contortions in Kent, where the county council is expanding selection while wringing its hands over the fact that so few children from poor backgrounds get into grammar schools.

It own recent investigation [pdf] into the gross inequalities that selection produces makes fascinating reading. Everything in this county, whose education system is a throwback to the 50s, conspires against poorer children: the test, the pricey tutoring, the expense of transport to get to selective schools, and the high cost of uniform and school trips as the grammars jostle to emulate private schools – which are just above them in the pecking order.

However, instead of scrapping the 11-plus (the obvious way to maximise choice and limit inequality) tinkering around the edges is proposed. A few more children eligible for the pupil premium will be shoehorned into the grammars while the council gets on with opening a new selective school without even running a legal consultation.

So no choice at all for the parents who may not want a secondary modern education for their children, and another illustration of the vein running through all these stories. In our type of market-driven system the poorest and most marginalised children inevitably lose out.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of choice, or of its twin sister, diversity. I like the idea of a range of local schools with different ethos and culture that parents can choose between – but only if access is fair to all.

Even before the 1988 act, England had one of the most diverse school systems in the world. In the urban area where I grew up we had the choice of comprehensive, grammar, secondary modern, faith, non-faith, council, voluntary aided, uniform, non-uniform, single sex and co-educational schools.

Unfortunately this diversity was organised as a hierarchy. The poorest children ended up in the sink schools, and little has changed.

That is partly because choice and diversity post 1988 was never allied to radical reform of school admissions, but also because the tools of the market – league table and Ofsted – mean that what former Tory minister David Willetts once memorably described as the “parental arms race” has inevitably collided with each school’s need to maximise its own performance.

We now have the worst of all worlds: the hierarchy is steeper than ever but diversity that did exist within the non-selective system is being ironed out as schools are forced into chains and obliged to conform on everything from curriculum, qualifications and culture, to the dress codes of pupils and staff.

In a few years someone will have to come along and announce the revolutionary idea of getting rid of the “bog standard” academy and offering the choice of something new and different.

What that new and different should be is probably the subject matter for a much longer piece. But the fast approaching 30th birthday of the 1988 act could – and should – be a trigger for us all to start thinking now.

Powered by article was written by Fiona Millar, for The Guardian on Monday 13th June 2016 07.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010