Matthew Dancona

Laying down the law | 11 March 2008

Laying down the law | 11 March 2008
Text settings

What is going on over school admissions? Last week, Jim Knight, the schools minister, urged disappointed parents to make greater use of the hopelessly bureaucratic appeals system. Today, he and his boss, Ed Balls, said they had evidence of schools – they won’t say how many – breaking the admissions code and asking parents inappropriate questions about their backgrounds – even, apparently, asking them for donations to the school.

Nobody would defend such practices, but what has to be asked is why ministers are cracking down so hard and so publicly on what must surely be quite a small-scale problem. The answer is that the admissions code has now moved from one status – that schools must “have regard” to its strictures – to another: it is now part of the law of the land. This was the heart of the deal struck by Tony Blair to bring on board some rebel Labour backbenchers to support his creation of trust schools in 2006. The admissions code enshrines the one-size-fits-all spirit of the comprehensive system and now it has statutory force.

Balls and Knight are flexing their muscles to show that this Government will enforce the law and that schools should expect tough implementation of the code. Today’s message was: we’re watching you. What is so depressing is that this should be the thrust of education policy at this particular moment.

As Fraser showed in his influential piece on the Swedish schools revolution, best practice shows beyond doubt that decentralisation and deregulation are the secret to raising standards. In the FT this week, Gordon Brown seemed to be endorsing the Blairite model of public service reform: choice, marketisation, permanent revolution. But judge this Government by its acts, rather than its rhetoric. It has done next to nothing to improve the supply of places at the best schools (for that you need a genuinely liberal system of school financing and capital investment). It urges parents to put their trust in systems, ranging from the bureaucracy of appeals to the deplorable casino of selection by lottery. Today’s show of strength by Balls and Knight was a subliminal warning to all heads not to get too free-thinking as well as an ultimatum to the small number who are actually behaving irresponsibly. And the message was: the gentleman in Whitehall still knows best.