A flawed attempt to solve the social divide in schools

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The Independent Online

The idea that the social divisions of Britain's education system would be remedied by requiring all parents to pay fees is not immediately persuasive – not even if fees are means-tested so that the state pays for children from poorer families. However, Anthony Seldon should be congratulated for his provocative pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation in which he makes this proposal.

The plan has the virtue of honesty. In effect, many parents "buy" their children places at good state schools by paying the premium on house prices in a particular catchment area. Mr Seldon draws attention to a study earlier this year by Warwick University which found that it can cost up to £20,000 extra to buy a house in a good catchment area, and up to £40,000 more in the South East.

It is simply no use for the defenders of the principles of comprehensive education, – which are still valuable and well worth defending – rejecting proposals such as Mr Seldon's simply because they would make existing practice transparent.

The Seldon plan should be rejected because, although it would blur the division, which it rightly calls a "gulf" between the private and state sectors, it is likely to make the divisions within the present state sector not just more explicit but wider over time. Fees would vary to reflect the desirability of schools, and entry to the "better" schools would be restricted, even more than at present, to the better off.

Mr Seldon's other argument also fails to pass muster. He says that, as with the health service, the need for higher spending on education is so great that it cannot be met out of taxation alone – voters simply will not tolerate it. Only if parents pay (some of) the fees themselves will taxpayers be willing to stump up the money our schools need to become consistently world class. This proposition, however, has less validity than in the case of health care. Spending is rising fast in education and, provided that pay scales can be freed to recruit, motivate and retain enough teachers, there is no huge future unmet need.

Mr Seldon's pamphlet serves, however, to draw attention to the many ways in which parents with means and application are able to manipulate the existing system in such a way as to make a mockery of the ideal of comprehensive education. Religious labels in particular are exploited in socially divisive ways. This is yet another argument for a government U-turn on faith-based schools.

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