Leading article: Political courage is required to set schools free

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The Independent Online

If Mr Prescott is under the impression that the poor are well served by the present system he is mistaken. He takes heart from the fact that state secondary schools are non-selective. But they often practise non-selection in name only. The truth is that the best state schools end up taking pupils from well-off families because parents deliberately buy houses close by. A survey for the Sutton Trust last week revealed that better-off families dominate the intake of the top 200 state schools. This is effectively selection by catchment area. Allowing popular schools to expand is the only fair solution.

Any parent asked what they want for their children's education will, naturally, answer, "A good local school". But the real question is how to achieve that. Giving greater autonomy to individual schools and parents has the potential to drive up standards across the board in secondary education. The beneficiaries will not just be the middle classes, but all families. The Government is right to want to remove the control of schools from local education authorities. This is essential if the state is ultimately to become a "guarantor" rather than an inefficient "provider" of secondary education.

That is not to say there are not inconsistencies in the Government's approach. The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, appears torn between wanting to give schools more freedom and wanting to socially engineer them. She has floated the idea of "bussing" pupils from poor areas to wealthy schools. And the White Paper is expected to demand that schools contain a specified mix of different abilities. The Government cannot have it both ways. Freedom for schools means the ability to decide their intake, curriculum and ethos. The Government cannot be allowed to interfere in schools for political reasons. This would not be freedom.

It is reported that the Government has given way to civil service objections to the liberalisation of school admissions. Plans to bring forward applications from October to January - something that would have given time for headteachers to make provision to expand - have been dropped. This is not an encouraging indication of the Prime Minister's will to implement his reforming agenda.

Of course, there is a strong dose of politics in all this. The Prime Minister has made no secret of his desire for more middle-class parents to educate their children in the state sector, rather than opting for independent schools. This is a major motivation behind the Government's proposal to allow private schools and faith schools to cross into the state sector and receive government funds. But none of this makes the Government's plans any less worthwhile.

The days when the state could be expected to finance and manage every secondary school in the country are over. So are the days when parents could be expected to accept whatever school - however inadequate - was offered to them. The Government's education White Paper this week ought to reflect this new reality - and Mr Prescott's objections should be politely brushed aside.