Posted on Jul 16, 2004

In the comments for Aptitude rather than ability, Geoff says:

… it’s all about school uniforms and inter-house tiddlywinks championships. Hogwarts for All! (sigh!)

Of course, he’s exactly right.

As a minister for education, the thinking runs something like:

  • Kids in our schools are not achieving enough,
  • It’s possible that the voting public might hold me responsible for this,
  • I’d better figure out how to ensure that kids achieve more,
  • Revelation: private schools seem to do well, let’s figure out why and how and then apply some of that.
  • Damn, all of my really very good ideas about this are going to take ages to have any real effect,
  • Anything that takes more than a couple of years is going to be too late to save me,
  • We need something quick!
  • Okay, deep breath: let’s take some of the not-directly-educationally-relevant stuff that private schools do and see if we can apply it quickly, on the basis that people will think it’s all the same stuff,
  • Easy - they have “houses” and lots of competition, cake in the dormitories, school uniforms, prefects and cool looking badges.
  • Cake and uniforms and badges sounds expensive :-(
  • Houses and prefects it is!

So as a result, all schools will quickly have to adopt the “house” scheme to segregate pupils (let’s just ignore the fact that most comprehensive schools have been doing this for years). Anyone in the top ten percent of the school is now a prefect.

It’s all veneer. The reality is that houses and prefects probably do play a part in making private schools successful, but the reality is a lot more to do with parent commitment (in the form of money and pupil encouragement), pupil commitment and overall ethos. Not having to deal with a class full of children from the local council estate is also not to be under-estimated.

Radio 4 seem to be into the swing of things, including a spoof Jennings and Derbyshire sketch in Today on the day the plan was released. Unfortunately they seemed to get rather too wrapped up in having fun with it, forgetting that they’re may actually be a serious problem.

Watching a government minister on Question Time last week attempt to explain exactly why the word choice was associated with the proposal was delightful. Partly because none of the explanation that he gave explained how any choice would actually be available, but also because a significant number of people expressed the opinion that they don’t actually want choice they want good schools.

In September this year it will be time for our son to start the process of choosing a secondary school for transfer in 2005. We get to apply to several schools and they choose who to accept. The criteria they use are set out publicly and there’s an appeal process, but it’s still something of a lottery. Every year there are kids who don’t get given any of the three schools they choose.

Parents who elect to pay for their child’s education are clearly expressing and getting a choice. Parents who actively participate in the process of trying to get their child into their preferred state school (which round here includes a boys grammar) are able to influence where their child is placed, but they don’t really get choice. I’d bet that there are a whole set of parents who don’t participate in the process at all and the kids go wherever the LEA sends them. Correlating parental education, income, employment, etc. against secondary school placement would be an interesting exercise, though it would probably show what we already know - the middle classes are aware that they have some sway and work to use it. The already disadvantaged get pushed a bit further down the heap.