Leading Article: A race for improvement

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT set itself a laudable target in yesterday's White Paper: 'The transformation of education we have undertaken is designed to ensure that our education system becomes the best in Europe.' In 1988, the Education Reform Act began the process, by introducing a national curriculum and assessment regime which will raise teachers' sights, and parents' expectations. Yesterday's White Paper aims to round off the 1988 Act, by creating a structure in which autonomous schools can improve themselves, unencumbered by local political hindrance. Schools that are too weak to improve themselves will be shut down, or taken out of the local authority and governing body's control.

The mechanisms that the Government has chosen for administering schools and raising standards represent the most practicable means of becoming Europe's finest system: indeed, they differ in only minor ways from the proposals outlined in this newspaper's own Schools Charter last year. But will they work quickly enough, when our continental partners and competitors are already striving to improve their own performance?

Responsibility for administering schools is being transferred both upwards and downwards from local authorities. Some power will shift to schools themselves, as they opt out. The rest will be vested in central hands: the Secretary of State, and two powerful new bodies, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and the Funding Agency. Devolution of power to parents and local communities offers real local accountability of schools to their consumers. Direct government responsibility for the funding of individual schools will clarify accountability to the taxpayer. That is the right balance of central with local power.

Unfortunately, however, there is no way of knowing how long it will take to reach that destination. The education department's projection that 4,000 out of 23,000 schools will opt out by 1996 is merely a statistical guesstimate. Ministers are unwilling to force schools away from local council control, because they accept that parents must be free to choose, and because schools that are nervous about opting out may prove to be poor self- governors. Schools will be free to opt for inertia. Ministers cannot afford to bribe hesitant governing bodies, so the sole attraction of opting out will be a greater freedom to choose how to spend a more or less level budget. Many schools will choose to play safe, and stay with the local government devil they know.

The White Paper is radical. Instead of looking backwards to 11-plus selection, it looks forward to increased diversity. Parents will be able to set up their own schools in areas with inadequate provision. Successful grant-maintained schools will be able to expand into the premises of their failed neighbours. Poor standards will provoke rapid action. But Choice and Diversity offers no revolution; at best it promises evolution, at a pace dictated by schools themselves. It is no doubt wise, for the present, to accept a speed that allows the average to keep up. But this is a race on which our future economic success depends; we know, to our cost, that schools may not choose to move fast enough. If it so proves, ministers will have to consider more forceful measures before this Parliament completes its term.