Andrew Haldenby: Is Cameron's policy shift the right way to go?

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The Independent Online

This is the latest in a series of Conservative policy shifts on schools. Far more than the other parties, Conservative policy has swung since the 1970s between the opposing poles of parental choice, and direction by the Department for Education and Skills.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher strongly supported giving "education credits" to parents so that state schooling would develop according to their preferences. But the education secretary at the time, Sir Keith Joseph, was unable to defeat opposition from Department for Education officials. As a result, by the second half of the 1980s ministers had decided to hold schools accountable through a national curriculum, national tests, an inspection agency and performance tables. Kenneth Baker, Kenneth Clarke and Gillian Shepherd created a framework that was inherited and then extended by David Blunkett in 1997.

Perhaps because the Labour Government embraced central direction so enthusiastically, Conservative interest in choice and school autonomy reawakened. At the 2001 election, the party stood on a platform of "free schools", which meant an end to central regulation, but which was misinterpreted by some as an end to school fees. By 2004, the "Right to Choose", indicated that policy had returned to that of 1979.

Now David Cameron has reintroduced the idea of ministerial action combined with choice. No one should doubt his genuine intention to raise standards by acting where, in his view, the Government is failing. But the experience of his predecessors should give him more confidence in the policies on which his party so recently stood.

Most importantly, greater central direction did not guarantee minimum standards for all children. Fifteen years after the introduction of the National Curriculum, less than 40 per cent of 16-year-olds achieve GCSE grades A*-C in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. Revisions by the Statistics Commission have shown that no more than six out of ten 11-year-olds are reaching the required level in English, a very long wayfrom the ambitions of Kenneth Baker and his successors.

It is the least privileged families who have suffered the most. The weakest primary schools are situated in deprived areas. Last month the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, said that in primary schools where standards have improved, the children from poorer families are not seeing the benefit.

By contrast, the introduction of greater choice in countries including Sweden, and American cities such as Milwaukee, has increased standards quickly. Children from poorer familes have benefited most. It is this evidence that has driven the Government to change direction.

The Labour Party manifesto gave the Government a clear mandate to allow the establishment of more schools of different types and to give parents greater choice. The promotion of Andrew Adonis was a clear signal of intent and the forthcoming White Paper on secondary schools should be the moment for the Government to put forward any radical ideas.

Greater choice and school autonomy would deliver the objectives that David Cameron has set himself. Giving parents greater choice would enable them to opt for schools where literacy is taught effectively. Removing the restrictions on selection and curriculum would allow a range of vocational schools to emerge. Removing Ministerial influence over the examination system would remove one of the key pressures for government agencies to allow examination standards to fall; the standards of the independent International Baccalaureate have been robust.

Cameron proposes to improve discipline in schools by removing the restrictions placed on headteachers in decision making. This part of his programme is the exciting agenda for schools reform and is supported by senior figures in the Government. It should enable Cameron to turn his good intentions into results.

The writer is the director of the think tank REFORM