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Observations on schools

It seems impossible, in the year 2002, for a child simply to drop through the system, and not to be offered any sort of place in an English state school. Not a child who has learning difficulties, a physical handicap or a bad disciplinary record. Nor a child whose parents are stubbornly insisting on a place in a particular school. Just a straightforward, well-behaved child from a sensible, caring home, described by the headteacher of her primary school as "one of the most capable students we have had".

Yet as I write, days before the start of the autumn term, Ellie Sherman-Smith, age 11, has no secondary school place, and scant prospect of one. It is testament to the mess that successive governments have made of the state school system, particularly in London.

Ellie has the misfortune to live in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which, whatever its talent for emptying dustbins and so on, is a complete nonsense as an education authority. It exists only as a result of Margaret Thatcher's jihad, which broke up the Labour-controlled Inner London Education Authority. It controls just one secondary school: the famous Holland Park comprehensive. Two other state schools in the borough are open to girls: both are voluntary-aided Roman Catholic schools and so control their own admissions.

Confronted with these options, Ellie's mother, Maggie Smith, chose two schools outside the borough boundaries, one of which (her first choice) is actually the closest secondary school to her home, and well within walking distance. Both turned Ellie down (the closest after an appeal), as they are technically entitled to do.

Smith turned to the schools within the royal borough, ruling out one because the journey is too long - an important issue for a working single parent. The remaining voluntary aided school wouldn't even send an application form, saying it was full up. That left Holland Park, which is also full. Ellie has floated up and down the waiting list (priority depends mainly on proximity to the school), starting at 24th, going down to 37th, up to 17th, and now to 19th. The borough's admissions officer suggested another school outside the borough, but that turned out to be full, too.

Possibly, Maggie Smith has made some fundamental error in playing the system: it is hard to tell, since secondary school admissions in London are now like a very advanced game of poker, except that nobody ever puts their cards on the table. Ministers witter on about the importance of diversity and parental choice, but all she wants is a school for her daughter within reasonable distance of home.

The law states clearly that a local education authority has a duty to find every child a school place. To judge by its opaque statement in response to NS inquiries, the royal borough takes a somewhat insouciant attitude to this duty. "We do our very best to place as many children who live in the borough as possible."

Well, thanks. But any doubts about whether an 11-year-old should receive full-time education were supposed to have disappeared early last century.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Show trial: the left in the dock