Leading article: Setting schools free can only be half of the answer

More thought must be given to social cohesion and protecting pupils
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The Independent Online

The direction of education policy in Britain has been clear for some time. There is a move – supported by all the main political parties – towards greater freedom. That is going to mean more faith schools, more sponsored academies, more schools run by parents groups and a general increase in the diversity of education provision.

This trend could be seen in Gordon Brown's speech yesterday promising to allow parents to vote to remove a failing school's management and to bring in a new one. It was there in the Conservatives' plan last week to allow teachers to form co-operatives to run their schools and their long-standing pledge to allow parents to set up independent state schools. And the Liberal Democrats have long advocated a mix of provision in the education sector.

All this is broadly welcome. Statism in the education sector has run its course. The top-down command-and-control model has stifled innovation and delivered disappointing educational outcomes. We urgently need new thinking about ways to drive improvements in our schools. The argument that encouraging good schools to take over others, allowing parents to find their own solutions and generally liberating the sector will help is compelling – especially at a time when the education budget is going to come under serious pressure.

But the greater freedom that all three parties are pressing for in the sector will inevitably come with greater unpredictability and even conflict. We see something of this problem in the Government's flip-flopping yesterday on sex education in faith schools. It is there too in the recent row over alleged links between two Muslim faith schools and the radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Obviously, schools should not be given public money if they instruct their pupils in religious bigotry, or deny students access to important facts about the world on doctrinal grounds. But the potential problems of greater diversity are not limited to faith schools. A school run by a parents group or a teaching co-operative could be just as dangerous if badly, or irresponsibly, run. So the question is: how does the state allow schools to innovate, while also protecting social cohesion and children's education?

Diktats from Whitehall, laying out precisely what schools can and cannot do, are not the answer. There has been too much of that kind of interference from Labour over the past decade. And it would defeat the object of reform if new freedoms for schools were accompanied by an avalanche of new regulation.

But there does plainly need to be firm controls on schools. The answer lies in a slimmed-down national curriculum, which outlines clearly what knowledge is to be expected of children by the time they leave school, and a strengthened Ofsted inspection regime. At present inspections by the watchdog are too infrequent. Schools and teachers must be allowed to teach in a way that gets the best results – but they must also be in no doubt about what their wider social responsibilities are.

To resurrect a tarnished slogan from Labour's early years in power, there needs to be a third way between statism and free-for-all. And all those politicians furiously churning out ideas on how to hand over power to local providers should turn their attention to the mechanisms and safeguards which will prevent those devolved powers being abused.