When schools select pupils by asking parents to produce their marriage certificates or by requiring them to buy overpriced uniforms, it is not just wrong but against the law. So said the schools minister Jim Knight yesterday. He did not, however, explain that the law in question was one forced on a reluctant Tony Blair in 2006 by Labour rebels, who were worried about where his drive for parental choice was heading. They feared that the independent state schools he was promoting would cherry-pick brighter and better-off pupils, condemning the rest to sink institutions. The MPs thus made their support for Mr Blair’s plans conditional on a toughening up of the code on admissions.
By writing to schools to demand that they comply with the new law, Mr Knight is sending a clear sign that the Brown administration understands the risks of covert selection more clearly than Mr Blair ever did. What is less clear, however, is whether there is also a change on the wider question of choice. By accepting that expressing a preference is not the same as making a choice, the minister showed he has grasped a reality blindingly obvious to any parent whose child has been turned down by an oversubscribed school. The drive to create academies continues, however. It creates new options for some, but jars with the concerns about selection. Even though academies are notionally bound by the admissions code, that is hard to police as they are their own admissions authorities – a status that ends up producing less socially representative schools.
If the government’s position on choice remains unclear, there are no such doubts about the Conservatives – they plan to use independent providers to build up spare capacity so more parents can shop around. Their modernising spokesman, Michael Gove, rightly points out that families in poor areas are currently the least likely to be able to convert their preference into a real choice. But as with the academies programme, though on a greater scale, his plans risk more covert selection. Unlike in Labour, many in his party would see that as a good thing, as last year’s grammar-school row showed. The political difficulty for the Tories is justifying the spending necessary to fund at least 200,000 extra places at a time when the school rolls are actually declining. The cash would come from an earmarked fund for investment in existing schools, meaning they would miss out on improvements.
Parents may continue to question whether choice in schools can ever be more than an illusion. But if the government continues its subtle shuffle away from the Blairite educational agenda then by the next election there could be real choice at the ballot box.