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.