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36. The Myth of Parental Choice


Parents choose their child’s school, right? Wrong. Firstly, any choice is constrained by the fact that all state schools do the national curriculum, whether or not it is appropriate for your child.1
Secondly, it is often the school that does the choosing. School selections are made on the basis of catchment areas – where you live. Houses near popular schools can cost almost £20,000 more than houses in the catchment area for unpopular schools. For every 10% of children doing well at primary school in London the price of nearby housing jumped by over £5,000.2 So those who do not own their own houses or who cannot afford to live in those areas are more likely to live near unpopular schools.
In March 2008, The Guardian showed that 25,000 pupils in England and Wales were given a place at a school they did not choose.3 In Feb 2009 one in 5 parents were expected to miss out on their first choice secondary school.4 The lengths some parents will go to get their children into ‘good’ schools begs the question: on what are they basing their assessment of good? Usually it means a large number of middle-class children appearing to be obedient and compliant, high position in league tables and good Ofsted reports. All these are presumed to be accurate measures of the quality of the school. They give a skewed and partial picture. More often, parents are trying to avoid ‘bad’ schools, with lots of poor people in them, those from different ethnic groups, those with high visible evidence of non-compliance. The belief is that children will be contaminated by association. That school is doing the choosing feeds into inequality.
In 2008 one girl’s parents were willing to give up guardianship of their child to a relative to get her into the school of their choice.5 Middle-class parents will have more resources to appeal, to push their kids through selection tests (such as 11 plus which is still around in some areas) and to send them to private schools, if necessary (that is if the only other option is a ‘poor’ comprehensive).
As school funding follows the pupil, popular, oversubscribed schools get more funding than less popular schools with empty spaces. This exacerbates inequality.
A lottery scheme for secondary school places adopted in some authorities emphasises how little choice parents truly have. Adoption UK refer to research by Bristol University and the Institute of Education, London showing that the lottery scheme in Brighton and Hove failed to improve access of poorer children to better schools.6 If such a system actually worked there would probably be outrage.
In 2011 the coalition government announced a consultation on school admissions. They revealed that the codes and regulations in place were “complex, confusing, costly and unfair” with over 600 mandatory requirements on admission authorities (Local Authorities, governing bodies or Academy Trusts).7 I have no faith that any new regulations will be any better.
The choice of school is only one of the non-choices parents and pupils have. Once registered at school, failure to turn up on time every day can lead to serious sanctions. The choice to holiday in term time is similarly constrained. You cannot choose for your child to skip a year if they already know it, skip the class that they hate, or stay a year behind if they want to do it again. You can’t insist your children stay with their friends.
Parents can’t insist their children have lessons in philosophy and skip history, miss swimming lessons because they can already swim or choose to ignore homework requirements to enable children to pursue other interests. Once the school has you, the home-school contract puts duties on the parents without putting similar duties onto schools. Government plans to strengthen these contracts take away parents’ choices and children’s rights. Schools will have the power to enforce ‘discipline’ (i.e unquestioning obedience) through parenting contracts, parenting orders and fines.8
1. See academies section for schools that do not have to follow the NC but pupils still have to follow and accept whatever curriculum they are told to and parents have no choice over whether and how their children are
punished for not doing so. 2. BBC News (23 Nov 2009) House prices ‘raised by good primary schools’ accessed 28 Dec 2012 However, we need to question whether it is schools pushing up house prices or school results reflecting the wealth or the intake. 3. This is the number who were given places at schools they did not even
apply to, not just those getting second choice. Polly Curtis (12 Mar 2008) State schools demanding payments from parents to secure places, ministers find The Guardian p4 12/schools.schooladmissions accessed 28 Dec 2012
4. Polly Curtis and Anthea Lipsett (28 Feb 2009) One In Five Parents Could Miss Out On First Choice Schools The Guardian 5. Fiona Millar (13 May 2008) Redressing the balance The Guardian http://
accessed 28 Dec 2012 This article suggests that new rules in 2011would improve matters, but things didnʼt get better: Millar F (12 Dec 2011) Dodgy school admissions practices could become the norm once more The Guardian code-unfair-practices accessed 28 Dec 2012
6. Adoption uk (6 Sep 2010) School lottery scheme fails to help poorer families
school_lottery/ accessed 28 Dec 2012 7. Dept for education (8 June 2011) New admissions code: more places in good schools, a fairer and simpler system updated inthenews/inthenews/a0077550/new-admissions-code-more-places-in-good- schools-a-fairer-and-simpler-system accessed 28 Dec 2012(but see note 5 above) 8. Paton G (2 July 2009) All parents to sign ʻbehaviour contractsʼ Telegraph parents-to-sign-behaviour-contracts.html accessed 28 Dec 2012

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