It’s become an annual tradition, like the first cuckoo of spring. At the beginning of March, when state secondary schools send out acceptance or rejection letters to anxious parents, a New Labour stooge pops up to point out that the majority of parents managed to get their child into their first choice of school. This is proof, apparently, that most parents are happy with the schools their children end up in.
A moment’s reflection reveals how spurious this argument is. The fact that a majority of parents manage to secure a place for their child at their first-choice school doesn’t mean they would not have chosen another school had a better one been available. Remember, it’s only their ‘first choice’ in the sense that they put it first when ranking the schools on offer. A parent could easily be successful within this framework and still be unhappy with the choices available to him or her.
The only meaningful conclusion you can draw from this statistic is that, for the majority of parents, there isn’t much variation in quality in the range of schools in their neighbourhood. If there was one outstanding state school in every postcode, you’d expect a majority of parents to put down that school as their first choice and, given limited space, most would end up disappointed. The fact that they don’t suggests a degree of uniformity within the system.
Is that in itself something to be welcomed? Most people in Britain’s educational establishment would say it is. Ever since the assault on England’s grammar schools, ‘parity of esteem’ has been the ideal within the state sector. When Labour ministers cite the percentage of parents getting their child into their first-choice school as evidence that the system’s working, that’s the criterion they’re appealing to. And when Tories attack the system on the grounds that not enough parents are getting their child into their first choice of school — particularly in London — they’re appealing to the same standard.
The problem with this principle is that it leads to mediocrity. What tends to happen in most local authorities is that if one school is performing particularly well, it will be referred to the Schools Adjudicator who will then conduct a thorough investigation to discover whether it’s complying with the School Admissions Code. And some outstanding faith schools have to contend with attacks from their own Diocesan Boards as well. Last year, for instance, Cardinal Vaughan, an all-boys Catholic school in Holland Park, was the subject of a complaint by the Catholic Diocesan Board and duly received a visit from the Adjudicator. Apparently, the Board was unhappy about the fact that 91 per cent of Cardinal Vaughan’s students secured five good GCSEs.
The insistence on ‘parity of esteem’ is what accounts for the difficulty the products of comprehensives have when competing with the products of independent schools. As the majority of outstanding state schools have been forced to become more mediocre, social mobility has virtually ground to a halt. Last year, only 75 boys on free school meals got three As at A-level compared to 175 boys at Eton. ‘Imagine it,’ said Michael Gove. ‘One school having two and a half times as many boys eligible for the top universities as the entire population of poor boys.’
Precisely this danger was flagged up by Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism (1956): ‘It would… be absurd from a socialist point of view to close down the grammar schools, while leaving the public schools still holding their present commanding position. It is curious that socialists… should fail to see that “parity of esteem” within the state sector, combined with the continuation of independent schools outside, will actually increase the disparity of esteem in the system as a whole.’
Curious indeed, particularly as Crosland himself led the charge against grammar schools nine years later. It’s one of the great ironies of Britain’s postwar history that under the guise of egalitarianism, successive Labour governments — with the collusion of the Tories — have ended up prolonging Britain’s class system by ensuring that state schools find it more and more difficult to compete with public schools. Most parents may end up securing a place for their child at their first-choice of school, but only because virtually all state schools are now second-rate.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 6, 2010