The consequences of parental choice

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Where is this going to end? How many unnecessary places will be added before it is decided that there are enough? John Till discusses the consequences of parental choice in the education system.

“So far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.”

Where have you seen this before? A Department for Education press release? A Conservative Party manifesto? The Education Reform Act, 1988?  Actually it is Section 76 of the Education Act, 1944. 

But wasn’t “parental choice” a new idea from the 1980s? Not so. It had been a basic principle of educational administration for 40 years.

What made it a political issue in the 1980s and today is the tension between the “wishes of the parents” and the “avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”.

The costs of building and running schools are considerable, and avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure meant that local education authorities (LEAs) could build only what was required. Then they had to manage what they had to avoid unnecessary costs. So a school would be deemed to be the appropriate school for a particular area and free transport, where it had to be provided, would be to the designated school only.

This did not mean that parents had to send their children to a designated school. They could send them elsewhere if places were available and if they were prepared to meet the costs of getting them there. It was usually left to headteachers to decide whether places were available, and that could be a subjective judgement.

Parental choice became a contentious issue only from the 1960s with the pressure to end selection at 11. Opponents of comprehensive schools argued that “the wishes of parents” meant that there had to be different types of school, ignoring the fact that the only real choice was to accept or reject a place at a grammar school if a child had passed the 11-plus and had been offered one. 

The prospect of all children from a given area going to a designated school dismayed some parents because the schools reflected the social composition of the area they served. It was the disappearance of the escape route provided by grammar schools and the efforts of some LEAs to create balanced social intakes which turned parental choice into a political cause.

So it was that the right to choose (or, more accurately, to express a preference) became a key feature of the 1988 Act. LEAs had to adopt an imposed formula to calculate the capacity of schools, admission limits were introduced to prevent choice being denied if places were available, and independent appeals panels were established. 

New types of schools, CTCs and academies, which controlled their own admissions, appeared, sometimes in areas where there was no need for additional places. And now free schools have joined the list.

Ironically, at a time of financial retrenchment, it seems that the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure is not a priority. For real choice on any scale requires surplus capacity. And surplus capacity costs, which is why Ofsted and Estyn regularly castigate local authorities for not closing schools.

Encouraging successful schools to expand threatens existing provision. Why, for example, develop 6th forms in 11 to 16 schools in areas where the post-16 provision is in 6th-form or tertiary colleges? Not only does this undermine coherent local systems, it also leads to the additional cost of redundancies if courses have to close.

Where is this going to end? How many unnecessary places will be added before it is decided that there are enough? What else is being sacrificed to release the funds for this expansion? And when it is decided that public expenditure on expanding parental choice has become unreasonable, who is going to start cutting back and closing schools? 

And where will the advocates of the current initiatives be then? Probably not in Wales, where Powys County Council is proposing a coherent, integrated and consistent approach to planning provision for 16 to 19-year-olds!


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