What would you pay to get your child into the best state school? £20,000? £100,000? £500,000? We’re not talking bribery, here, we’re talking house prices. If you lived in Buckinghamshire, you might have to add an average of an extra £483,000 to the price of buying a house in the catchment area of Beaconsfield High School. That’s at the ridiculous end of the scale described in a recent report by Lloyds Bank, but living near a popular school can easily add upwards of £20,000 to the price of a house, and sometimes £100,000.

The search for next September’s school places has just begun for 1.2million children. One might replace the term ‘search’ with ‘scrimmage’, because the demand for places is higher than ever for 2015, with the recent baby boom meaning primary schools are overloaded, and local councils saying that they expect an extra 130,000 primary school places will be needed over the next three years. Nobody seems to have come up with a solution to the pressure faced by some areas.

The idea of ‘choice’ in picking a school was established a quarter of a century ago now. But it used to be that parents had the choice between their local authority-run schools and minority faith schools, and they all chose pupils on broadly similar lines. Now, believe it or not, 56% of secondary schools are academies, and 13% of primaries, and do not fall under local authority control. That means they can set their own selection criteria. So can foundation and trust schools, free schools, city technology colleges, university technology colleges and studios schools, all of which now mean that around three-quarters of schools choose how they select pupils.

So moving into the area within a school’s designated distance criteria for selection might be one option (though the majority of us might discount this if we live near Beaconsfield!). But distance is only one means used to select. You may be faced with a range of local schools all using different criteria. The eleven-plus exam is still used in 25% of local authorities, with a few schools selecting totally on academic criteria and others using a mixture of measures. Others allocate some places on ‘aptitude’ – for sport, for example.

All this means that the intake of any one school may or may not reflect the nature of the housing and educational attainment of the community around it. Selection is on the rise.

A fairer approach

Some schools use a ballot or lottery for part or all of their places. This, argues the Sutton Trust, is the fairest way go. The Trust, which campaigns for equal educational opportunities for all, argues for a more widespread use of this method. Some academies are looking into using a lottery to countermand claims that they are selecting only the most middle-class pupils.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Head Teachers would like the Government to make it compulsory for schools to give priority to applicants who receive free school meals. This might stop spiralling house prices – although some argue it could actually increase pressure on housing around the school as there will be fewer children getting places through living in the catchment area. What priority for free-school meals pupils would certainly do is to help improve social mobility, giving more disadvantaged pupils the chance to go to the best schools. This has to be worth exploring.

As local authority control over schools continues to reduce, how is the Government going to address the huge variation in the way that state schools select their pupils? At the moment, only a few people are winning the race.




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