Unfair to the only child

Observations on school choice

This month, thousands of parents are sending their children to school unwillingly, not because they have anything against education, but because they wanted a different school. They may have been rejected by their first-, second- and third-choice schools and found that the appeals process led nowhere. They may even by now be considering home tutoring. But, amid all the controversies about school choice and parents' rights, there is one issue that is not discussed: the almost universal "sibling criterion".

Secondary schools accept new pupils according to several criteria, listed in descending order of importance: the first one is usually if the school can provide a child with specialist facilities, such as disabled access. The second (nearly always higher than how close to the school you happen to live) is whether the child has a brother or sister already attending.

Why does almost every school and local authority regard this as a good reason for giving preference to a child? Admissions officers usually mention what might be called "family cohesion": if siblings attend the same school, it is easier for parents to plan holidays, transport, open evenings, and so on. It is also advantageous for the school, because it gives a degree of familiarity and predictability to the new intake. Both these arguments make one thing perfectly clear: the sibling criterion is mostly for adults' convenience rather than for children's benefit.

It is difficult to find any other evidence to justify its existence. You may have thought that children tend to do better academically with a sibling to encourage them and lead by example. It seems there is no evidence at all to show this. Or you may think that younger siblings tend to behave better with an older brother or on hand to clock them one if they step out of line. Again, there seems to be nothing to show that this is the case.

The sibling criterion becomes even more problematic when you consider the general context. The 2001 census shows that, in Greater London, the proportion of families with one child aged ten to 11, compared to families with two or more children aged between ten and 18, is roughly 40:60. In other words, 40 per cent of the children moving to secondary school are automatically disadvantaged by one of the top admissions criteria. It does not take much reflection to see that the social and emotional needs of only children - often expressed in strong bonds of friendship - are quite as compelling as those of siblings in different year groups. Yet their needs are emphatically not being met by the present system.

The only convincing argument for the sibling criterion that I have heard is that a younger child will feel safer in school with an older sibling to look after him or her. It is difficult to argue against children being allowed to feel safe, but they receive this advantage only at the direct expense of many other children and families. It is essentially a question of two against one - and that, as any child will tell you, is unfair.