When Nick Clegg admitted earlier this year that he and his wife were nervously deliberating where to send his son for secondary school, he reflected the anxiety of parents across the nation. Finding the right school is a process that can turn determined atheists into enthusiastic churchgoers, and the educational novice into a league-table obsessive. But the changes that the deputy prime minister and his colleagues have implemented in government have made the choices for parents harder than they ever have been before.
Reforms to school structures and management, as well as radical overhauls of the curriculum and the way teachers’ performance is measured, have moved the goalposts around school entry. While parents are supposed to have more choice, the reality in the short term may in fact be greater complexity and confusion.
The most significant change – on which Michael Gove, education secretary, has staked his reforming credentials – is the introduction of so-called free schools, inspired by Sweden’s “Friskola” and charter schools in the US. Set up by local people who want to improve education in their area, these institutions are state-funded but independent of local authorities. They also have the power to choose their own curriculum.
Some will flourish; others, inevitably, will flounder. For parents, entrusting their children to these new, untested schools is a risk. Officials admit they are years away from a policy on how to deal with failing free schools.
It is not only parents in the state sector who are grappling with these issues: private institutions are also being swept up in the reforms. The option of converting to a free school or an academy has become a potential lifeline for private schools facing a collapse in numbers as local parents are forced to economise. Even if they are pleased to be relieved of paying fees, parents may be given little warning of the conversion from private to state. As one mother tells Chris Tighe (“Private to free”), you cannot buy certainty, however much you might want to.
The challenge, given the pace of change, is to stay ahead as the system evolves. Janette Wallis (“Pick the best”) advises that parents setting out in search of a good school need the cunning of Ronnie Biggs. For those not possessed of a criminal mastermind, the key is to start early and visit as many places as possible, demanding the past three years’ exam results as you go.
If the task seems daunting, it is worth remembering that the reforms are meant to benefit both pupils and parents in the long run.
A new system for measuring school performance, announced last month, aims to prevent the perverse incentives that cause teachers to focus on pupils on the C/D borderline at the expense of pushing talented students to get A and A* grades. The remodelled curriculum draws on expertise from abroad, aping east Asia’s focus on algebra and mental arithmetic, and Massachusetts’ enlightened approach to history and geography teaching.
Advances in technology – as described by Merlin John (“Tech matters”) – can make for better teaching in the classroom and improved communication between parents and teachers outside it. One London academy has made its staff available until 8.30pm every night to discuss problems with parents on Skype or by text. Whether Clegg will have time for such intense dialogue with his chosen secondary school, the London Oratory, is another matter.
Helen Warrell is the FT’s public policy correspondent