Kelly pledges support for more competition in schools

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The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, last night declared herself a "parental champion", promising parents more choice of state schools.</p>In her first speech since taking office, she pledged to bring about "an increase in the range of providers of education", opening the door for more private companies and church groups to take over the running of state schools.</p>Ms Kelly, a devout Catholic and a mother of four, added: "I take it as a matter of principle that choice should be expanded where we can - so that parents can increasingly choose between excellent local schools with different strengths and have choice within the curriculum in all schools."</p>She told the North of England Education Conference in Manchester - a traditional school year curtain-raiser - that she wanted to see more "competition" to decide who should run new schools. This would allow bids from private companies, church groups or even parents' co-operatives when a new school was proposed.</p>Her speech prompted a warning from the leader of the country's second largest teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, that Ms Kelly was in danger of launching a "beauty contest" between schools.</p>Chris Keates, the union's general secretary, said her ambition "could be undermined if choice is reduced to a superficial 'beauty contest' between schools".</p>John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, added: "I think it is dangerous for governments to overplay the extent of parental choice. I have never met a headteacher whose specialist school had been chosen by a parent because of its specialism."</p>Ms Kelly said: "We need to see an increase in the range of providers of education." She called for an acceleration in the "roll out" of specialist schools (there are already nearly 2,000), a creation of more school sixth forms and moves to allow popular schools "to expand more quickly and more easily".</p>However, she ruled out a return to selective grammar schools. "Under this Government there will be no free-for-all in admissions or the setting up of new grammar schools.</p>"We want parents to choose schools, not schools to choose parents."</p>She said all people involved in education - including herself - should be "first and foremost parental champions".</p>However, she coupled her pledge with a warning that parents should remember their responsibilities as well as their rights. "Universal high standards require universal good behaviour in our schools.</p>"Parents have a right to send their children to orderly schools but with that there is the responsibility to ensure that their child attends school and behaves well, as well as the responsibility to support the school's approach to discipline.</p>"Badly behaved pupils damage their own education and that of their classmates: pupils who truant seriously reduce their chance of success at school as well as later in life. Pupils should be in school on time and ready to learn.</p>"Schools have a right to expect the unconditional support of parents to achieve that."</p>Ms Kelly said she wanted to create an environment "where people with ambition aren't thought to be getting above themselves" and "where progress in life is determined by individual effort and talent - not family background".</p>"No one can be content when the gap in entry to higher education between lower and higher social classes remains stubbornly wide," she added.</p>"There can be no room for complacency when the type of job you get depends increasingly on your parents' incomes."</p>Ms Kelly added that she supported moves - outlined in a report by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector - to stretch the brightest pupils and allow them to sit tests and exams early and study for degree courses while still at school. </p>