State schools 'need private investment': Surplus places and red tape hinder expansion

THE GOVERNMENT should free up the education market and break down the barriers between state and independent schools by making it easier for the private sector to invest in new schools and facilities, a former education minister argues in a pamphlet published today.

Michael Fallon, who lost his job as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education when he lost his Commons seat at the last election, says that the system for investing in schools is 'bureaucratic and fossilised'.

Although ministers have succeeded in liberalising demand, by enabling parents to decide which school they would prefer for their children, they have failed to open up the supply of places. Government policy and local authority bureaucracy has 'prevented good schools from developing organically, and poor schools from closing'.

Good schools cannot expand, and the state pressure to control wasteful surplus places prevents new state schools from opening; only about 20 new schools open each year against a total of 24,000. Pressures on public spending mean that only about one- third of schools' need for big projects can be satisfied each year.

He suggests that independent schools and other private enterprises could co-operate with state schools to provide new facilities such as language laboratories and sports halls, by sharing their costs and use. Mutual contracts would enable schools to share teaching.

There is no reason, he says, why the state should own all the educational buildings used by schools. 'If the choice is between waiting years for brand new facilities, and using a private complex, there is no choice.'

Mr Fallon calls for the abolition of the 'basic need' rule, which prevents any school from expanding or a new one being built if there are spare places at any similar schools within a two- or three-mile radius. The problem of 1.5 million empty desks continues mainly because there is no incentive to close schools when parents have to send their children to them.

Brighter Schools; Social Market Foundation, 20 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AA; pounds 6.

Leading article, page 25