School admissions: Stop blaming the victims
Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education says it's the parents who should sue.
So Harrow local authority has decided it cannot prosecute a mother who allegedly gave an inaccurate address in order to get her small son into the school of her choice. The council would have preferred to take legal action against her, but was advised that laws on fraud were unsuitable in this situation and laws on education were insufficiently clear.
Few would condone filling in incorrect details on official forms, but the very suggestion that a local authority would consider prosecuting a mother for doing what this one did shows what a miserable society we have become. Instead of allowing people to make their own choices – and hopefully act responsibly – almost everything we do is now controlled by petty rules created by petty officials.
Education secretary Ed Balls, it is reported, has ordered an official inquiry into the allocation of school places, hoping to find out how frequently parents do attempt to manipulate the system. Perhaps remembering how Poole local authority recently used terrorist legislation to carry out surveillance on a family suspected of living outside a school's catchment area, Mr Balls thinks his monstrous schools admissions code may need toughening up. Heaven help us.
As usual, politicians and their officials are trying to blame others for their own bad management. They are shifting the blame from the perpetrators of the crime to the victims.
The only reason parents are tempted to manipulate admissions procedures is because neither local authorities, nor national government, is capable of providing sufficient places in good schools. And despite all the hype, school choice is getting worse, not better.
When Labour took office in 1997, school catchment areas seemed to be heading for the dustbin, where they rightly belong. But over recent years, they have become an important tool in the official armoury, especially as social engineering and hiding underperformance have overtaken choice as a priority.
The current system is a mess. Education law is a mess, spread as it is across numerous, inter-related Acts of Parliament and even more incomprehensible ministerial Regulations.
The only way to reduce tension and conflict over school places is to have more good schools and more places in schools that are good. So long as there is unsatisfied demand, problems will occur and recur. And who is to blame?
Central government obviously, but the people with primary responsibility for providing sufficient school places that are acceptable to parents are local politicians and their officials.
In a fair world, it would be parents prosecuting them if they failed, not the other way round.
Perhaps an incoming Conservative government will avoid tinkering and produce instead a new, coherent, self-contained Education Act. This should create a special fund to allow parents to prosecute their local authority or, if needs be, central government if the authorities fail to offer a choice of acceptable school places.
That might shake the system up – and it can't come a moment too soon.