The issue of school places has stirred up a passionate row in the press this week. There’s a piece in the Telegraph by an infuriated Judith Woods, titled ‘Ed Balls’s insane education policies make school gate cheats of us all: The lack of decent schools has driven parents to desperate lengths’. In it, she lays into government policy and Ed Balls for failing to provide a decent level of schooling for the children of all parents.
For trying to get their children places in schools that provide a proper level of education, parents are being accused of being, in the words of the schools adjudicator Ian Craig, ‘thieves’ whose ploys to get their children into oversubscribed state schools are alleged to deprive more deserving cases of places of their own.
With only 1,100 confirmed cases of questionable applications out of somewhere around two million children taking up a school place last year, it doesn’t seem to justify the demand by some to criminalise parents, or to waste tax payers money: one head teacher appeared on television last week to boast openly that he had used private detectives to snoop on suspected parents!
But as Woods points out, in circumstances in which, according to the OECD,
our 15-year-olds’ reading ability has fallen from seventh in 2000 to 17th in 2007, behind Estonia and Liechtenstein. In maths, our pupils languish 24th, below the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and in science they have dropped from fourth to 14th. [And] the reason, the OECD mooted, was poor teaching.
it’s not surprising that parents are prepared to resort to desperate measures.
So, what’s the answer? This week on Radio 4 on Monday morning, Dr Sheila Lawlor of the think tank Politeia was trenchant in her criticism of government policy. She (and Labour Party policy advisor Matthew Taylor) were being interviewed by Jim Naughtie. I’ve not included Taylor’s comments or Naughtie’s questions.
We have to look at the school admission system and whether it’s working. We have a very top-heavy government regulated school admissions system, which doesn’t satisfy. I think it was 30,600 parents appealed the last time round. And there’s something wrong if a parent can’t even get their child into a local primary school of their choice.
In my view, what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to open up the system so there are more school places. Now in theory this should be easy to do. Good schools should be able to expand … But the local authority, the body that gives permission for freeing up the system, doesn’t want any competition to the existing schools in its area and that is precisely the problem. So, I’m in favour of the Conservative policy of opening up and having more schools opening up to meet parents’ choice.
Parents have to have information about a school. Now how you provide that is a matter for discussion but it is very important that a parent should follow his or her hunch… If you’ve ever talked to parents at a school evening or in the playground, they really are up to speed. They see their children. They know the damage a bad school can do … because a bad school has a very bad impact on a child, not just academically, but also pastorally and socially. And don’t give it to me that the school doesn’t make any difference. If that’s the case, let the government just get up and get out of schooling and in fact I think that would be much the best way if we had less government interference in schools.
We have tens of thousands of surplus administrative and bureaucratic positions like the school adjudicator and this whole paraphernalia of school appeal admissions procedures. This is a very top heavy system based on endless bureaucracy, appeals and enquiries. It is not unlike a Soviet system. Now where you allow 32,000 parents to appeal against an arbitrary decision by an official as to where their child goes to school, of those 0.5 succeed. And I think it is a deceitful system we’re operating now and I think the government should say let the schools and the parents work it out for themselves and in that way you will encourage more movement. Just let more places open up. They need not be big, heavy, expensive places. Primary schools are not expensive to run. What is expensive is the overhead.
Woods ends her article by denying that Michael Gove’s promise to ‘bust open the state monopoly on education’ if the Tories come to power next year is the answer. I think she’s wrong! ‘A Guide to School Choice Reforms’, a report published in March this year by Policy Exchange, suggests otherwise.