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On secondary school selection and the myth of choice

My son will be starting secondary school in September this year. So towards the end of last year we spent a lot of time reading up on the policies of our and adjoining London boroughs, visiting schools, and finally applying.

The application works like this. You can name up to six “preferences” (not “choices”, note). A central (London-wide, but I’m not sure under what body — I don’t think the GLA handles education) body assesses your application against the entry conditions of your first preference. If you meet those conditions, you get a place in that school; if not, they go on to your second preference; if you meet that school’s conditions, you get a place there, and so on.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course, because schools’ entry conditions don’t just apply to your child in isolation; they have to take account of how many people are applying, and how many of those fall into each of the entry conditions, and so on. As well as that, not only do different boroughs have different conditions, but so do different schools within a borough.

The entry conditions of most state schools, including the new academies, depend primarily on distance from the school. There are special conditions for children with special needs, but that’s a small minority.

Now, all of this raises a number of problems — or contributes to them, at least.

First is the fact that different schools have different entry conditions. This applies in particular to the new academies. Our closest, non-denominational, mixed-gender, state secondary, is Mossbourne, the much-cited flagship of the government’s new academies programme. We live about 900 metres from it, according to Google Maps. Close enough, you’d think. But their admissions policy goes something like this:

  • the first 10% if the year’s intake goes to kids with special needs;
  • next, you get priority if you have a sibling already at the school;
  • about 60% of the remaining places go to the nearest kids within a 1km “inner zone”;
  • the rest go to kids outside the 1km zone, but not by simple proximity; it now depends on how far away the next-nearest non-denominational, mixed, state school is.

Confused? Most parents who have kids going up were. And it’s further complicated by the fact that there’s a test. Not a pass -or-fail test, of course: this is still a comprehensive school, so there’s no selection by ability allowed. Rather, this test is used to split the kids into ability bands. The entry conditions then ensure that an equal proportion of kids from each band is offered a place. This is to ensure that the school has kids of a range of abilities; to ensure that it is truly comprehensive, if you will.

None of that is inherently bad: a school can’t take every kid, if more want in than it has places, so it has to have some conditions by which to decide which ones to take. And ensuring that you take on kids with the full range of abilities is egalitarian and in keeping with the comprehensive principle.

The problem comes when the school is oversubscribed, and so is the next one in the area, and the next; and when they all have different entry criteria.

Such is the situation in our corner of Hackney. Well, across Hackney as a whole, but we happen to be in one of the more problematic corners, since we’re right at the edge of the borough. That wouldn’t matter if the Hackney schools gave priority to Hackney kids, but they don’t: their distance criteria are based on pure straight-line measurements, ignoring borough boundaries.

Again, that wouldn’t matter so much if all the other boroughs did the same. But they don’t. Our neighbours Tower Hamlets, for example, not only give priority to Tower Hamlets residents, they also have tied primary schools. If your kid goes to one of these, then they are guaranteed a place in the associated secondary school, if they (you) want it.

But this is not intended to be a big bowl of sour grapes. Our boy almost certainly won’t get into any of the Hackney schools, but he should get into the next-nearest one, which is just over the border into Waltham Forest. And all of this may be moot, anyway. But more of that later.

I referred in my title to “the myth of choice”, and I was careful to stress above that the application process allows parents and children to specify their preferences, rather than choices. That’s because of what happens next, after the application process has come up with a school for your kid.

You get an offer. One offer. That’s it. (Or maybe none, in which you have to run around frantically making further applications.)

It’s not like it was when I applied to university (and probably still is for university applications today). There, you could apply to five (or was it six?) institutions using the UCCA (now UCAS) form. They all assessed your application, and up to all of them made you an offer. You could then choose among your offers and decide which place would suit you best.

That was choice. For secondary schools. despite what the government might tell you, there is no choice. All you can do is state your preferences.

Our particular dilemma had another wrinkle, though.

See, he and some of his friends decided that they wanted to go to something called The Latymer School, in Edmonton. I was surprised when I found out that this is a grammar school. Now, some years ago I was surprised to discover that these things still exist in England. I’m pretty sure that when the comprehensive system started in Scotland, it was done properly: we got rid of all the grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, as far as I understand it. So as I say, it was a surprise when I realised they still had some in England.

But even then, I thought they were restricted to Kent and a few other places. I had no idea there were any in London.

Still, there we were. We weren’t about to forbid him to look at a particular school, despite our natural left-wing reaction to the idea of a selective school. Perhaps of more concern is that he would be going out of the borough, with both a long journey to get there, and a less ethnically diverse mix than he’s used to from primary.

When it came time to stating our preferences, we let him have the final word. Which is a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a ten-year-old, perhaps, but it’s better than pressuring him into going somewhere he’d rather not go, and driving him away from us.

One thing I can say: selection by ability is obviously better than selection by ability to pay.

And another: we’ll be incredibly proud of him wherever he goes.

He got through the first battery of tests, and took the second; and we’ve been waiting since then. And tomorrow, we’ll know.

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