No 10 plans closure of failing schools to boost most popular

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DOWNING STREET is studying plans to give parents greater choice over the schools their children attend, in a move which would result in the closure of schools that fail to attract enough pupils.

Tony Blair is attracted by the idea of bringing forward the date at which parents express a preference for schools so that the most popular ones would have more time to boost capacity by providing more teachers and classrooms.

Instead of being asked to choose their favoured secondary schools in October or November for the term starting the following September, the process would be brought forward by almost a year and parents would make their choice in January.

Supporters say this would ensure that more parents got their children into their "first choice" school. They admit the scheme would have to include a tough policy on closing unpopular schools, whose buildings could be taken over by expanding ones.

Before he stands down as Prime Minister, Mr Blair is determined to make public services more consumer-oriented. In a parallel move last week, John Reid, the Health Secretary, said he would allow hospitals that did not attract enough patients to close.

The "real choice" plan for schools is floated today by the former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers, who is advising Mr Blair on the Labour manifesto. Writing in the modernisers' journal Progress, he said: "In practice we presently have a school admissions timetable which is just about rationing out places at good, popular schools. This could be changed by bringing the whole process forward."

Mr Byers added: "Popular schools are already able to expand but in practice find it difficult to do so. Changing the admissions timetable coupled with the removal of the present restrictions and limitations placed on schools to be replaced by a new freedom to expand to meet parental choice would revolutionise our schools system. It would take control away from vested interests and place it in the hands of parents. They, after all, are in a unique position to know what is in their child's best interests.

"School choice puts the levers of power in the hands of parents. They as citizens can be empowered to be a driving force for improvement. By their decisions they will raise standards and improve the quality of education."

The plan is being considered for inclusion in Labour's general election manifesto. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, is sympathetic - but officials in her department are said to be sceptical about a major extension of "choice."

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