I was brought up in London. The infant school I went to was just up the road from our house, and I would walk there with my mum and my sister, along the wide, tree lined London pavements. Sometimes our cat would follow us from the side road where we lived to the main road, and we would have to chase him back home before we headed off to school. The middle school I went to was a little bit further away, so sometimes we caught the bus, and sometimes we walked, depending on how lazy we were feeling or what the weather was like. Again, there were wide pavements, zebra crossings and traffic lights en route to keep us safe if we chose to walk. My secondary school was further away still. I had to catch a bus and then a tube train and walk quite a distance at the other end. It was a bit of a pain, especially on dark winter afternoons, but the route was safe and I got a free travel pass so I didn’t mind too much. We used to jump on the back of the tube train at one end, and then make our way through the doors between the carriages during the journey, so that we got to the front end of the train before it arrived at its destination. (We would take off our blazers when we did this, because the grown ups would ‘report you’ to your school if they saw you doing such things.) We used to hang off the back of the route master bus on our way home too. London kids are nothing if not tough.
In the village where I live now, there are no pavements. This might sound very odd to you if you live in London or any other big city, but it is the truth. There is a tiny sliver of pavement in one spot, but it’s so narrow that you are better off walking in the road. This lack of pavements was very disconcerting to me when we first moved here from London. (As was the total darkness at night, because there are no street lights either – I soon learned the folly of heading out after dark without a torch.) The route to our village preschool is quite dangerous for local families, because of the lack of pavements, and so a few years ago I got in touch with the roads department at our local authority, and they came and made a special ‘false pavement’ for us, to guide children safely to our setting. (My own kids still find it amusing that I managed to get this made, and they now refer to it as ‘mummy’s preschool pavement’). To get between our village and the next village by foot, you can either take your life in your hands on a dangerous B road (with blind bends and no pavements), or you can walk along a muddy track most of the way, before joining the dangerous B road for the last part of your journey. There are no regular buses, and very definitely no tube trains or trams. Because there is ‘no safe route’, either to our village primary school, or to our local secondary, and because both our children attend their ‘nearest suitable school’, they both qualify for a free school bus from the local authority.
So many of the discussions about education seem to start with the assumption that everyone lives in London. “If parents don’t like it, they can always go somewhere else” is something that you would only say if you didn’t understand the reality of most parents’ lives. Outside of London and other big urban centres, the notion of ‘parental choice’ is a complete myth. One of the main reasons why it is a myth (apart from a shortage of school places and much bigger distances between the schools that do exist) is because of the paucity of safe routes for walking, and the complete lack of transport options apart from your own car. If we wanted our children to attend any schools other than their local ones (which thankfully we don’t), we would have to commit ourselves to a twice daily drive of ten or twenty miles. When you challenge the notion of ‘parental choice’ politicians tend to point to the figures showing how many parents get their ‘first choice’ school. But parents are not stupid, and most of us put down the school we know our children will get into, or the one we know they will be able to travel safely to, as our first choice. And in the vast majority of cases outside of London, this translates as ‘your local school’.
It is hard for government to justify the existence of school league tables, and the drive for ‘competition between schools’, without the accompanying notion of ‘parental choice’. If parents don’t actually have a choice, then you are not doing them any favours by giving them the false impression that they do. Unless parents have access to public transport, or can afford the time and money involved in driving their children to school every day, they have to ‘choose’ their local school, no matter where it comes in a league table, or what Ofsted result it has. Even in cities where transport options are good, ‘choice’ is often limited by catchment areas or by the popularity of a setting. I know that some people like the idea that parents have a ‘choice’ of schools. Others believe ‘competition’ is a motivating factor to keep schools on their toes. Sometimes I hear parental choice stated as a ‘fact’ to justify school policies that have the potential to push some parents away (onerous and expensive uniform regulations being a good example). But the reality for many (perhaps most) parents is that there really is no choice. And that being the case, the job of a state school is to work with its local community, to create a safe route to learning for every child.