As readers of ConservativeHome will know, there has been considerable coverage and debate (here and here on this website) about our decision – taken reluctantly – to prosecute Mrinal Patel for giving misleading information on a school application form.
It has been suggested that Harrow Council’s decision to prosecute Mrinal Patel amounted to an attack on parents wanting to do the best for their children, and indeed the very concept of parental choice. The reality is quite different; the action we took was only ever about wanting to protect the school system from abuse. The evidence we have suggests that in Harrow this problem has already trebled over the last couple of years and could get even worse.
An important fact regarding the Patel case that has become somewhat lost is that within a mile of her actual address there are four other first-rate schools – one of which offered her son a place that she subsequently turned down – that are all rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted. In fact, the vast majority of Harrow’s schools are rated either ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. This is worth mentioning for two reasons. First of all, an assumption has been made by some that her decision was one of desperation at not being able to find a good school. This is not true – Harrow’s schools perform better than the national average, as does the one which offered her son a place.
The other reason is that it demonstrates the necessity for a line to be drawn somewhere. Whether you think that the current system is irreparably broken and unfair or not, it’s the system we have. And under this current system, no local authority could manage if every school was forced to accept every application. If parents do not have confidence in the system and feel they need to lie to get a place, because everyone else is, the whole system becomes unworkable. In Harrow, we try to provide choice for parents and children by attempting to make all our schools as attractive and desirable as possible. This should ensure people are happy to chose from the schools nearest to them, rather than having to go further afield. And we have had some success on this front, as this year nearly 80% of children got into their first choice primary schools, and for the last two years Harrow was by some distance the top borough in London for secondary school applicants getting their first choice.
Parental choice is very important to us, and is part the approach we have taken to schools and education. Last year, Harrow saw the opening of Krishna Avanti – the first voluntary-aided Hindu school in the UK. This provides parents with a unique choice of primary school, and is also a good example of how school provision can be shaped by parental and public aspiration; as part of an ‘educational free market’. This shows our strong support of the Conservative Party’s policy to “
allow educational charities, philanthropists, livery companies, existing school federations, not for profit trusts, co operatives and groups of parents to set up new schools in the state sector and access equivalent public funding to existing state schools.” We believe this strengthens the system and drive standards of all schools up.
However, without a change of the system, the choice available to parents and children will continue to be limited. There will always be some schools, at some point in time, that are better than others and parents will want the best school for their children. This is why, as a result of the Harrow case, Ed Balls has asked the Schools Adjudicator to examine the options available to local authorities when facing similar problems.
It is wrong that the current rules restrict choice in the way that they do, but it is equally wrong that when those rules are broken – and to the detriment of people who are following them correctly – there is no clear form of redress available to local authorities or parents.