Leading article: Parent power can't cure all

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The Independent Online

In her first speech as Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly made clear that she intends to position herself as the parents' champion in education.

In her first speech as Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly made clear that she intends to position herself as the parents' champion in education.

She said she would like to see popular oversubscribed schools allowed to expand and more private sponsorship of state education. Her empathy with parents is understandable. She is the mother of four young children. And obviously, it is political suicide for any politician to start his or her career in a new Department saying that they intend to oppose parents' wishes. But it would be worrying if she believed choice to be the panacea for raising standards.

For a start, many headteachers of the good schools Ms Kelly has in mind don't want to expand. They believe part of their success is attributable to the school's size and that bigger is not necessarily better. In some instances, viz Greenhead sixth-form college in Huddersfield - the most successful sixth form college in the land - there is not enough room on site to build extra classrooms without restricting the amount of leisure or play space.

The topic of more sponsorship of schools - or a "wider range of providers" of state education as Ms Kelly puts it - is less controversial. Specialist secondary schools have proved that they can raise standards at a faster rate than the remaining bog-standard comprehensives. Their success is not necessarily as a result of the sponsorship. Most educationists believe that the bidding process for specialist status helps concentrates minds on how standards can be improved. But at least the money brought in by the sponsors, be they private companies or church groups, does help to improve facilities. Obviously, the "wider range of providers" is also an endorsement of the Academies programme. Tony Blair is committed to creating 200 by the end of the decade. It would be foolish to expect Ms Kelly not to back the initiative. However, it is still untried and untested and a degree of care is needed in vetting sponsors to ensure that mavericks do not slip through the net.

The third strand of the new Education Secretary's "parental champion" pledge - to stretch the brightest children and allow them to progress through tests and exams early - is welcome. The overall message, though, is that Ms Kelly should not rely on parent power and choice to steer her through her reign because, however attractive as an election slogan, it won't always work when translated into real life.

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