Crackdowns on school uniform often run into ingenious workarounds by pupils. Ban trainers, and Doc Martens might suddenly creep into style; insist every child must wear a tie, and they will – but worn ludicrously short. Attempts to enforce fair admissions policies give rise to similar defiance on the part of parents. As the letters go out this week, one in five are being told that their child cannot attend their preferred school. The middle classes, in particular, risk being disappointed this year. Admissions are being policed by a new code that aims to stamp out the range of ruses that have long helped more privileged children to win the best places.
Under the new rules schools are banned from choosing pupils on such criteria as whether their parents are married or in particular jobs. Forced on a reluctant Tony Blair by egalitarian Labour backbenchers, the code is the latest in a long line of attempts, stretching back over several generations, to promote equality of educational opportunity. Back in the 1940s it was hoped that grammar schools would deliver that, although academic selection at 11 turned out to be skewed in favour of well-to-do families; most of the rest saw their children consigned to the educational dustbins that were known as secondary moderns. In the 60s and 70s there were brave hopes that comprehensives would eliminate the bias. But, especially in London, the borders of catchment areas were soon affecting house prices, so instead of paying school fees affluent parents could choose to fork out for the right postcode. The new code also encourages councils to be more proactive in promoting mixed intakes, for example by allocating places in random ballots, or by picking pupils from across a wide geographical area to reflect the full range of abilities. Brighton is the first city to have embraced random ballots to determine who gets into its most popular schools. We report today – predictably, if depressingly – that more affluent parents are responding by going private, rather than by taking their chance with the rest.
Complicating the debate about admissions is the vexed question of choice. Parents have been encouraged to believe that they have it, but for many – and in those councils the Guardian has investigated an increasing number – it is proving to be an illusion. This year the rules have been changed so schools no longer know whether they were ranked as first or second choice. The change means parents no longer jeopardise the chance of a good alternative place by plumping for the best schools of all. But as more of them do that, the limited number of places ensures that more of them will end up frustrated. The Conservatives, together with Labour’s Blairite wing, argue that the solution is encouraging good schools to expand. That argument has logic, although it hardly fits with David Cameron’s proclaimed support for small schools. Spending money on extra places – money that other schools will then miss out on – is harder to justify at a time when the school rolls are declining. Besides, while international experience, such as in Sweden, suggests that choice might raise average standards, it can also entrench segregation. Choice may have a role but, for as long as educated parents continue to shop around more, it remains a dubious route to equality. For all the practical and political difficulties, experiments such as that in Brighton hold out more promise, and deserve support – at least until it has been seen whether they can be made to work.
Politicians of all stripes have taken to talking about social mobility, but the reality is that British society is sclerotic. The research suggests generations X and Y are more tightly shackled to the station in life that they started out from than the baby boomers ever were. And recent analysis by the Sutton Trust reveals that a third of all Oxbridge entrants come from just 100 top schools. Levelling the educational playing field is not easy, but it remains the only way of starting to level out children’s chances in life.