Free bus travel for children from council estates will be announced next week as part of the Government’s effort to end the middle class stranglehold on popular schools.
“Choice advisers” will tell parents about schools outside their areas to which they can apply and help them through the admissions process.
Groups of schools will be allowed to test children and put them into ability bands, sharing out the most and least able so that their intakes reflect the profile of the local authority or national area.
Although the “fair banding” system will not be compulsory, the Government will strongly encourage schools to adopt it to end the so-called admission by postcode lottery, which rewards those families that can afford to move closest to schools with the best reputation. Research has shown that schools in middle class areas have a higher proportion of top band children.
Critics of banding say it is the antithesis of parental choice because a child living next door to a school could miss out on a place and end up being taken by bus to one farther away if too many pupils of the same ability lived in their area.
Ministers will argue that some city technology colleges and academies successfully use a “doughnut” system of banding. That gives more places in each band to children living near the schools but sets aside a proportion for those outside the geographical catchment area.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told a conference in London yesterday that she was working on “how we can get families living on council estates to exercise their choice in as powerful a way as those from more privileged backgrounds”.
She argues that parental choice has been concentrated in the hands of middle class families. She told the Labour Party conference last month that all parents should be able to choose the school that was right for their child.
“For too long, access to some schools was open only to those who could afford to buy an expensive house next to a good school, while the rest were told to accept what they were given,” she said. “There was nothing fair about that approach.”
Measures in the School Transport Bill, which failed to become law in the last parliamentary session from lack of time, will be revived. The Bill allows councils to charge parents for transport on a means-tested basis, introducing yellow bus-style services similar to those in America.
But Miss Kelly is likely to scrap the clause which would have allowed councils to charge poorer families if they had rejected a nearby school in favour of one farther away.
The proposals form part of Tony Blair’s campaign to increase social mobility and bring fairness to public services. They demonstrate his frustration at his Government’s inability to raise school standards in some of the toughest areas.
About 300 of 3,000 secondary schools already band children, usually according to a non-verbal reasoning test. But the present law on admissions says that the percentage of children allocated to each band must reflect the profile of applicants.
Sir Cyril Taylor, a Government adviser and chairman of the specialist schools and academies trust, believes that the present system leads to distortions because schools continue to reflect their local areas rather than the wider profile of abilities.
Middle class parents have nothing to fear, he said, because a greater social mixture of pupils will improve schools and give them more from which to choose. It would end the unfairness of narrow, shrinking catchment areas which deprive parents living just outside of any choice.
Sir Cyril said: “It is not some kind of social diktat or American-style enforced de-segregation but groups of schools working together and children travelling on yellow buses instead of parents having to drive them all over the place, polluting the atmosphere.”
Middle class parents could also benefit from the greater choice and mobility because good schools in poor areas, such as Government’s flagship academies, would be open to them, he said.