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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
School choice raises political heat
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Getting their child a place in the right school is every parent's ambition - and satisfying that parental demand is one of the toughest tasks facing any education policy.

School gate
How can parents get the places they want for their children?

We all want more choice. But how much choice can we expect? Can everyone get into their first choice school? Should schools be choosing pupils or should it be the other way around?

And are we willing to pay more through taxes, fees and top-ups to have a wider choice of school places?

The question of providing families with more choice within the state school system is rising up the political agenda - with both left and right-wing parties beginning to head out into unfamiliar political water.

Such themes were examined in a School Choice For All conference organised by the think-tank, Reform, - which included a speech from Conservative education spokesman, Tim Collins.

The Conservatives have announced a bold policy shift to open up choice - with a plan that would stop schools from giving preference to families living near to the school.

This has raised the prospect of the most popular schools in cities such as London having to select from large numbers of parents trying to get a place - without any clear way of choosing between applicants.

School admission by estate agents might be abolished - but what would take its place?

And it would mean that parents who had moved near to desirable schools in the leafy suburbs would now be back in the scramble for places with everyone else.

Supply of places

Although barely had the idea been floated - and a shiver had been felt down the spine of middle England - than the policy was downplayed, with the suggestion that such a scheme would only come much later.

Tim Collins
Tim Collins says popular schools should be encouraged to expand

But Mr Collins told the conference that consumer power in education was long overdue - and that his party would bring to school places the type of radical energy that had extended home ownership in the 1980s.

Rejecting the "assumption that scarcity is inevitable, that there will always be a shortage of good things", he promised to "aggressively pursue policies which will increase the supply of good places".

And he repeated the plan to scrap the "surplus places" rule which can limit the expansion of popular schools.

But when he was challenged on how heavily over-subscribed schools would decide which pupils they would choose, if they couldn't use how near pupils lived to the school, he didn't offer any concrete proposals.

Instead he batted back the question by saying that "people were fearful of unleashing choice" and that "the greater risk is to stay how we are".

The party's "pupil passport" scheme has been dogged by confusion - with wags saying that it has needed so many clarifications that it was now only a temporary visa.

But the difficulties of extending choice are not only troubling right-wing politicians.

Supermarket culture

Phil Collins of the Social Market Foundation told the conference that "choice" was a difficult word for the left wing - with its free-market assocations - but that it could make a necessary "contribution to social justice".

Charter school
Charter schools in the US were widening choice, the conference heard

But what form would this version of school choice be likely to take?

The teachers' union leader, Doug McAvoy, recently launched a withering attack on what he claimed was Labour's secret agenda to introduce a "supermarket" consumer culture into the state education system.

Although dismissed by the government, the accusation picks up on ideas that are hanging in the air as Labour searches for big ideas for re-vamping the public services for the next general election.

If parents want to have a world-class education system, but they also want a low-tax economy, how do you bridge the funding gap?

Mr McAvoy claimed that the logic of top-up fees for university students would soon be applied to school pupils - and that part-payment for state education was on the horizon.

There could also be a wider role for private education companies, claimed the teachers' leader.

And the conference heard from private education company, Global Education Management System (GEMS), that "choice should be a basic human right" .

Bog-standard specialists

GEMS wants to set up a chain of affordable fee-charging schools - but it also wants to offer its services to the state sector.

The bog-standard comprehensive is already an endangered species - with specialist schools now in the majority in England - and with so much diversity in the system, a mixed economy of funding and providers might no longer seem such an ideological leap.

But such think-tankery has to be put to the practical test - and the conference heard from international experiences of widening choice.

In the United States, this has become synonymous with vouchers, where in a number of states parents can "buy" school places with public funding.

Although usually championed by free-market ideologues, the conference heard that support now extended to some deprived inner-city communities which see vouchers as a way of getting their children out of failing schools.

There were also accounts of how allowing parents greater freedom in setting up and running schools could rejuvenate previously decaying institutions.

But for a British audience, the detail of how these operated was enlightening. With a limited number of vouchers available in one scheme - the allocation was made by lottery.

As ever with the hunt for school places, you pays your money, but you might not get your choices.

School passports 'would take time'
15 Apr 04  |  Education
Tories' school places shake-up
11 Apr 04  |  Education
Tories clarify 'fee-paying' schools
19 Mar 04  |  Education

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