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Schools: giving parents the right to choose


"Choice and fairness are uneasy bedfellows," said The Observer, "and never more so than in education." How can you give schools and parents more freedom while ensuring decent standards for all? It's a question that both major parties have been struggling to answer. The Tories' proposal, unveiled last week, is to give parents the equivalent of an education voucher, which they can spend at either a private or state school, and to create a new generation of cut-price independent schools. And then there's Labour's five-year plan for education, formally launched this week. This will give state schools the power to control their own budgets and co-operate with the private sector. Popular schools that are oversubscribed will be allowed to expand, even if there are surplus places elsewhere. In addition, 200 city academies will be created in poorer areas, effectively operating as state-funded independent schools.

Labour's plans are hardly new, said Rachel Sylvester in The Daily Telegraph. "Many of these powers were introduced in the 2002 Education Act, but never fully implemented." There is one proposal, however, that is notable by its absence: "the introduction of selection by academic ability". This is the "clear red water" between Labour and Tory education plans. Although Tony Blair has rewritten Clause 4 and dumped the red flag, the idea of schools choosing their pupils on the basis of ability is still "taboo" in his party. But the Government can't dodge this forever, said the Evening Standard. The issue of selection "will only become sharper as the new freedoms take hold". The more successful schools are rewarded and expanded, the more pressure there will be on them to "refine their entry criteria. Their heads will argue the illogicality of having all these freedoms without the freedom to select the pupils they take."

This is what happens when you offer educational choice, said the New Statesman. Middle-class parents choose to send their children to the best schools, where the other parents share their aspirations. Schools, for their part, choose to admit bright children from nice middle-class homes who work quietly and boost exam results. It's a great arrangement, so long as you believe, as the Tories appear to, that "a million or so children of below-average ability and unfavoured family backgrounds can be herded into separate schools and forgotten". Selection leads schools into a self-perpetuating cycle of improvement or decline. "Give every school a fair mix or a 'balanced intake' - rich and poor, bright and dim - and the research shows that everyone benefits."


THE WEEK - 10 July 2004

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