If You Really Know Best, Mr Balls, Why Are There Still So Few Good Schools? as Thousands of London Children Are Denied Their School of Choice, the Former Head of Ofsted Argues That Social Engineering Is Holding Back the Fight for Higher Standards

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Byline: CHRIS WOODHEAD

LAST Friday I stopped for fuel in a garage in Wandsworth.

"Didn't you use to work in education?" the cashier asked.

I confessed that I had. "Well", she said, "things aren't getting any better, are they? My boy did really well at primary school. Now we've been told that the secondary school we wanted for him is full. They offered him a place in a lousy school miles from where we live. He doesn't want to go. We know he's not going to make any progress there." She seemed close to tears.

"There's nothing we can do, is there?" I commiserated and, muttering that it might be worth appealing against the decision, beat a hasty retreat. But the truth is that there probably is nothing she can do. Like thousands of other London parents who have received their children's secondary school place offers this month, she has no option other than to accept a decision she knows will damage her child.

Nearly half the children in Wandsworth, Southwark and Lambeth failed to secure a place in their preferred school. Three-fifths were rejected in Slough; two-fifths in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Richmond and Kingston upon Thames. Given these statistics, what can any parent do? The problem, obviously enough, is one of supply and demand. London does not have enough decent secondary schools. Ministers disagree. Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the schools minister, wants us all to know that the system of transfer from primary to secondary school has been "transformed".

The admissions code, she told us last week, has been tightened to outlaw "unfair and covert admissions practices that disadvantaged low-income families". Ignoring the fact that the number of secondary school places has remained constant while the number of 11-year-olds has declined, she invited us to celebrate a slight increase (1.1 per cent) in the number of families nationally who received an offer from their first-choice school.

She is right in one sense, of course.

The admissions rules have indeed been changed. They have now been made so complex that you need a law degree to have a hope of understanding what you are meant to do. A cottage industry has sprung up offering legal and educational advice on how to lodge a successful appeal.

Many authorities now use lotteries to pick the lucky few, so your child's future may depend upon the fall of the dice. Others force schools to admit equal numbers of children of different intelligence and from different social backgrounds. No school is permitted to exercise the slightest discretion in deciding which applicants are most likely to benefit from the education it offers. The state knows best and schools have no option but to conform.

The Secretary of State for Schools, Ed Balls, told the 2007 Labour Party conference that he wanted "to break down all the barriers to opportunity in Britain".

Since then his government bulldozers have been in constant action. Highachieving comprehensive schools? Balls dismisses them as elitist institutions that discriminate against working-class parents and he forces them to accept more children from disadvantaged homes. Last week he warned a conference of headteachers that they had to do more for such children.

Independent schools? Bastions of privilege, which he would, no doubt, abolish if he could. Last week, for instance, the Standard reported his absurd attack on the decision of many independent schools to introduce the international GCSE instead of the ordinary GCSE examination. …