It’s been a fraught week for families.

All over the country the letters telling children which secondary school they will be attending in September have thudded on to the carpet behind the letterbox.

No doubt there have been tears of joy and anguish.

This week I’ve have been in Copenhagen meeting education professionals from all over the world.

It‘s been fascinating listening to experts explain how their education systems work.

One question I asked many of the people I met is how parents choose their child’s school.

Parental choice, it seems, is not something many countries have.

As one teacher from the Ukraine remarked, ‘surely you just choose the closest, most convenient school?’

Another teacher, from Belgium, was shocked when I told her about our league table system and how we rank schools according to results.

Her question was "how do school rankings take into account the ethos of a school and how happy your child would be?"

Many of the people I met were puzzled at the idea of a competition for school places.

When I recounted tales of parents buying houses close to ‘good schools’ or even trying to beat the system by renting property and pretending that this was where the family lived, they refused to believe me until I could show them stories confirming this in the press.

Their astonishment set me thinking. Why do we have so-called ‘parental choice’ in England and is there a better way of allocating school places?

Parental school choice dates back to the abolition of our selective school system.

In the 1960s we abolished Grammar, Secondary Modern and Technical schools and changed to a comprehensive system (with some notable exceptions, like Kent).

This was a ‘left wing’ ideological move by politicians working towards a more equal society.

Right wing politicians, many of whom were either privately educated or who came through the selective system, were deeply opposed to such a change.

When the Conservatives regained power, they couldn’t bring themselves to bring back selection, but blamed the comprehensive system for all the ills of society and any educational failures they could find.

Their answer was to put in place the idea of a free market and competition as the way to ensure high standards.

Part of competition was the idea of parental choice.

Parents would be competing for places at good schools and those schools that were losing out would have no choice but to improve.

Alongside this was a move to remove control from what were seen as ineffective local authorities who had presided over the mass failure of the comprehensive system and the privatisation of schools as Grant Maintained ‘independent’ schools.

Another change of government, this time back to labour and Tony Blair’s infamous ‘education, education, education’ mantra, and the privatisation of education was put on hold.

But just as the Conservatives could not reinstate selective education, Labour could not abolish the idea of parental choice.

This would be too damaging politically, the removal of ‘choice’ is something that dictatorships do, not socialist democratic governments.

And so today, after six years of a Conservative coalition and now single Conservative government, the semi-privatisation and the wrestling of ‘control’ from locally elected councils is well underway, so much so that no longer can local authorities open new schools, even though they are legally responsible for ensuring every child has a school place.

But what of parental choice? If anything it is more a mirage than a reality.

Yes, parents will place in order the schools they wish for their children and try to avoid the ‘bad’ schools.

Generally, however, the choice being made tends to be more about parents looking for schools where they perceive other parents, just like them, will choose to send their child.

Yes, examination results are a consideration, but it’s more about social stability.

Perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and expose ‘parental choice’ as a false ideal.

If children were allocated their nearest school, irrespective of where it may be in some ‘league table’ then it would be in the interests of the local community for that school to succeed.

Perhaps we should place a responsibility on parents to be, in part, the agents of change in schools.

Parental support is a major factor in helping schools reform, change and improve.

It’s not all about exam results, as my international colleagues pointed out the ethos of schools is created not by the school alone but by the partnership between schools and parents.

Our obsession with league tables and parental choice should stop.

All teachers and schools want children to succeed. If the school does not have this ethos, parents would quickly know and can, and should hold the school to account.

Local supervision of schools by locally elected representatives should be returned.

Heads should be left to run their schools and control the staffing and curriculum, but local authorities could have an invaluable role to play in the planning of school places and ensuring that standards, in conjunction with Ofsted, are maintained.

Initially of course there will still be people who play the system, moving into a house close to a 'good school’.

But we should get to a point where all schools are good and the natural choice for parents would be the school that is most convenient, just as it is in many countries around the world.

  • James Williams is a lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work