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School choice is an illusion

The system is set up to make parents think that they have a choice about secondary schools, writes Miriam Shaviv

    (mocker_bat/iStock/Getty)

    The search for a Jewish secondary school for my oldest daughter began more than 18 months ago, when she started Year 5. We went to every open evening, listening carefully to headteachers’ speeches and diligently inspecting science labs and English textbooks. We booked daytime tours. We discussed the options with our daughter’s primary school teachers, and — endlessly — with friends going through the same process.

    This year, we dragged our daughter back to all the same schools for another open evening, hoping that a second (and sometimes third) viewing would help clarify the options , because by now we were thoroughly confused. While all the schools seemed excellent, there was no obvious choice. Amongst our friends, JFS, Yavneh and JCoSS were perceived as essentially interchangeable, despite the nominal denominational differences.

    Eventually we ranked three schools in our order of preference.

    Last month the first round of offers came out. We received our third choice. For various reasons, it wasn’t our favourite, although we will of course make it work for our daughter, if no other offers materialise. Some friends received their sixth choice – their “insurance policy” -– while others didn’t receive a Jewish school at all. Hasmonean is full of children who wanted JFS, JFS full of kids who preferred JCoSS.

    It finally hit me. Our 18-month search had been a complete waste of time. You see, the system is set up to make parents think that they have a choice about secondary schools. It’s an 
illusion.

    If you live in north London, you really only have two choices: intense Orthodox schools, or a large, state-of-the-art co-ed, serving the general community.

    Whichever you prefer, ultimately the system makes the decision for you. What you want is, too often, irrelevant.

    Our children deserve better.

    First, they need more types of schools to pick from. Our children have different strengths, interests and skills. Yet we send them all to a small number of Jewish schools which seem broadly similar in nature. The schools need to make more of an effort to differentiate themselves, whether through religious ethos, specialisms or general character.

    Choice is a defining characteristic of the 21st century. From our TV viewing habits and the way we shop through to our work patterns and family life, we expect to forge an individual path. How can we settle for such limited options when it comes to our children’s education?

    Second of all, the choices we make need to count for more. The admissions system is designed to be fair, but in reality it fails a large proportion of children, who are assigned schools they do not really want.

    One solution is creating a new school, as the teams behind Barkai College and Kavanah College are applying to do. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide a genuinely different option. If the founders can develop a distinctive vision, they can transform the educational landscape.

    Admittedly, under the current admissions system, many children will still not receive their first choice. How to fix that is beyond the scope of this article — and my knowledge. But it seems clear that part of the problem is a shortage of school places. As long as demand exceeds supply, schools are guaranteed to be full and parents are grateful to be awarded a place anywhere. If there was enough supply, a more competitive marketplace would emerge.

    No wonder existing schools are resistant. Both JFS and JCoSS have announced bulge years in 2018, to stem demand for a new school. While these are a welcome stop-gap measure, they also stop what the system really needs — variety and choice.

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