Leading article: Setting schools free

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The Independent Online

Those Labour MPs mounting a fierce rearguard action against the Government's forthcoming Education Bill, would find it difficult to deny the charge that they are playing into the hands of David Cameron, the new Conservative leader. But they would also argue that some things are more important than party politics. This refers, of course, to the return of selection in secondary education which they believe would be a result of the recent education White Paper.

The scale of this rebellion should not be underestimated. It has already attracted some 58 MPs, including former ministers, such as John Denham and Nick Raynsford. Even a former education secretary, Estelle Morris, has joined the rebel ranks. These are not the usual suspects who vote against the Government at any given opportunity.

Without Tory support, the Government would almost certainly be defeated over this Bill. To counter accusations that they are merely rejectionists, the rebels yesterday presented their own "alternative" White Paper that they hope will form the basis of a compromise. The Government is also looking to settle. To appease the rebels, the Prime Minister has let it be known he is considering making the code on school admissions - which at present advises schools to take in a cross section of abilities - legally binding.

But, on this issue, the Government ought to have the courage of its convictions. The White Paper is not perfect, but its goal of liberalising the secondary education sector is laudable. Removing the hand of central government and cutting the powers of the local education authorities should improve academic performance. The issue of admissions is more problematic. But here again the thrust of the original White Paper is the most sensible approach.

The Government has tried to pretend that the question of the admissions code has nothing to do with the White Paper. But it must have known that giving schools greater freedom would inevitably bring admission procedures into focus. After all, if schools have freedom over areas such as financing and staffing, why not over pupil intake? Yet the suggestion of a legally binding admissions code is flawed. Banding by ability is not appropriate in much of the country. It would be preferable to trust schools and allow them to get on with it.

The selection debate is something of a red herring in any case. The reality is that a high degree of "selection" already exists, as rich parents buy homes near to the best comprehensives. The key is to make schools better across the board. And despite the arguments of the Labour rebels, the best hope of achieving this lies in implementing the boldest elements of the White Paper.