Some schools are in wealthy areas with lots of green space around, not much graffiti and parents who have the time and education to support the school well. They have a vast majority of children with English as their first language and this is perceived to be a good thing. The children are middle class and potential parents think this means that there will be no, or very few, behavioural problems. Such schools are popular. Their popularity gives an impression of quality; just as people think an expensive price tag indicates a quality product, an oversubscribed school is viewed as being a ‘good’ school. Conversely, schools with empty places are assumed to be ‘bad’. Parents put popular schools first on their preference form as they are told they have a choice, hence the term ‘preference’ form. If they don’t live near the school, they won’t get in (the rules are more complicated for church schools but the effect is much the same). The continued publication of league tables with SATs and GCSE results makes this a cycle which it is virtually impossible to break.
This became such a big problem in Brighton and Hove that a limited lottery system was introduced for secondary school admissions. I know from teachers who work at the schools and, perhaps surprisingly, from parents whose children have ended up going to a hitherto unpopular undersubscribed school, that the effects are positive – the lottery has resulted in a social mix of children which has helped the less popular schools to improve their reputation, with no detrimental effect to the education of all children in the school.
There is also a myth that ‘bright’ children won’t do well at a school that has poor results. If parents work in partnership with teachers, are responsible, and support children at home, their children will do well at school. Bad behaviour in the classroom does have a negative effect on children and teachers but it is another myth that this is only a problem in deprived areas. Some middle class children are appallingly behaved just as some working class children are. Dealing with bad behaviour is something which needs reviewing, with proper consultation and dialogue between teachers, teaching unions and those with the power to change things. In the meantime, our job as parents and teachers is to support children in making appropriate, responsible choices as they grow up and part of this means choosing not to copy bad behaviour.
Michael Gove’s ‘Free Schools’, if they materialise, will create further division in our school system and be a criminal waste of money at a time when money in the public sector is in very short supply.