Secondary education and parental choice

Posted in: Family Last updated: 11 Mar 2014

Do you remember that time when you went to your local primary and secondary school? And that was it. There may have been a couple of secondary options depending on where you lived, your parents might even have spoken to friends with children already attending one. A few children you knew went private. And that was it.

The pre-league table days

Did our parents care about our education? Yes they did. But somehow the whole process took place without endless dinner party discussions, nervous exchanges in the playground about some family moving to get into a catchment area, or frantic open evenings at popular schools where parents spill out of the halls, all keen to hear the headteacher's speech.

Of course that was all pre-league tables, Academy-status schools and school place lotteries. Whether this has led to a better education for our children is open to debate. But as any parent of children toward the end of their primary education will know, the discussion around secondary education is alive and kicking, and for the uninitiated it can be a brutal, friendship-destroying process.

Working the system

There is currently a swathe of parents around the country eagerly awaiting letters confirming where their children will go for their secondary education. In those houses, nerves will be frayed and fingernails bitten.

"...just when you think you've worked out how the system works, it changes."

One of the most disconcerting aspects of secondary education from a parent's perspective is that just when you think you've worked out how the system works, it changes. Ever since we were sold the idea of 'parental choice' we've had a sense – invariably entirely false – that we can somehow control the process.

For those with the means and inclination the first option was to buy your children's education and opt for the private sector. In many ways, this option has remained the least changing over the decades. Another option open to some was to buy or rent a house within a school catchment area. But then official catchment areas disappeared, they became fluid from one year to the next depending on intake, or schools changed to academies and so set their own admissions policies. Some areas opted for the lottery system (random allocation) and suddenly being within a mile of a school had no bearing on whether your children could secure a place or not. And I haven't even touched on free schools opening and closing.


Now we're hearing about 'banding' becoming more popular, where comprehensive schools select pupils to achieve a balanced intake by ensuring equal proportions of children within each achievement band. A big tick for guaranteeing a comprehensive intake, a big cross for the sharp-elbowed middle classes moving within spitting distance of the popular schools.

There are, no doubt, pros and cons to all the different systems and it's for all parents nowadays to try and grasp the sheer range of schools and policies as they make decisions for their children. By all means, start saving for your kids' education from the moment they toddle, but it seems to me that where you live has become the biggest factor of all in the lottery of the British education system.

Written by Jane Bainbridge

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