When a choice is no choice

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The Independent Online

Both the Conservatives and Labour have chosen to make parents' "right to choose" the key plank of their education election campaigns. In both cases, however, the pledges are fraudulent.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have chosen to make parents' "right to choose" the key plank of their education election campaigns. In both cases, however, the pledges are fraudulent.

Last week the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, promised the National Grammar Schools Association he would allow grammar schools the right to expand and even take over the running of their neighbouring schools if parents backed the idea. This begs the question: what happens next? If the grammar does take over its presumably non-selective neighbour, does it introduce selection at 11, too? If it does, where do all the pupils in the neighbourhood who fail their 11-plus go? His pledge gave him an easy headline but ignored the point that a return to the days of a more selective secondary school system means a return to the days when the schools chose the pupils - rather than vice versa. After all, the number of parents who choose a secondary modern education for their children is very limited, but that - or private education if they can afford it - is all that is left for 70 per cent of parents in the education authorities that retain selection.

Labour is offering diversity and choice - a different pledge from the Conservatives, but again fraught with pitfalls for the parent seeking a school for their child. Labour's choice and diversity means more specialist secondary schools and an increase in the number of privately sponsored city academies. The proposals have some merit - especially if, as Labour intends, the specialist schools co-operate with one another to share facilities. However, the pledge again neglects the point. If parents are attracted, say, to a new city academy because of its vastly improved facilities and it becomes oversubscribed, it again becomes a question of the school choosing the pupil rather than the parent choosing the school. It may be, as is suggested in London, that the academies adopt a strict banding system - taking an equal number of pupils from each ability range. But the debate requires the spokespeople of both major parties to act with a little more honesty. Both proposals are likely to see a greater number of parents disappointed over their first choice of secondary school. Ultimately, parents may have preferred a pledge to devote resources and accountability mechanisms to providing a decent secondary school near their home rather than choice and diversity.

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