Tories offer school choice by expanding state system

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The Independent Online

A Tory government would expand the state education system by the equivalent of 260 new secondary schools over five years, Michael Howard announced yesterday.

A Tory government would expand the state education system by the equivalent of 260 new secondary schools over five years, Michael Howard announced yesterday.

The Tory leader pledged that an extra 100,000 parents would be able to send their children to their "first choice" school under his party's plan to boost the education budget by a third. It would rise by £15bn a year to £62bn by 2009-2010.

Unveiling his "right to choose" policy yesterday, Mr Howard played down the role of independent schools. Last week, Labour claimed his party's health policy would encourage people to have private treatment because a Tory government would meet up to 50 per cent of the extra cost. He said: "Our ambition is to give every child the start in life that today only money can buy. Under Labour, children will be left to fail. Our 'right to choose' will raise standards for all."

Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, said the Tories had produced "the first policies for half a century that would get middle-class parents, who at the moment feel they can only get a decent education by sending their kids to an independent school, back into the state system."

However, the Tories want to encourage a new wave of private schools with low fees and they hope private schools charging about £7,000 a year would cut their charges to attract pupils from the state sector. A Tory government would hand parents £5,500 - the average amount to be spent on each pupil by 2007-08 -to spend in this way but would not contribute towards the fees of independent schools charging more than £5,500.

The Tories would allow popular schools to expand and new ones would be set up wherever there was parental demand. They would take swifter action than Labour on under-performing schools, which would be forced to raise their game or be taken over by new management.

Schools would be able to control their pay levels, budgets and admissions policies, and be freed from government targets. Appeals panels would be abolished; heads and governors would deal with disruptive pupils.

Private companies, parents and faith groups would be able to set up new schools and take over failing ones, with funds allocated according to pupil numbers. The Tories insist that would not mean larger class sizes because capacity would increase. A schools expansion fund would provide an extra £3bn over five years.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the Tory plans would amount to selection rather than choice. "Tory talk about choice seems to amount to choice for schools rather than for parents and children unless they can afford private education," he said.

Graham Lane, leader of the country's local education authorities, said the plan to allow primary schools to decide their own admissions procedures would lead to selection at the age of five. "What is more likely is they will take the child that is likely to be well behaved, so if there are children from problem families or those with special educational needs they will be turned away," he added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Parents are being told they have greater choice but market-based policies inevitably mean schools choose pupils: pupils do not choose schools."