Leading Article: An obsession with opting out

John Major and Gillian Shephard are old buddies, each with seats in East Anglia. Mrs Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has repeatedly said that she is happy for Number 10 to play a big role in shaping education policy. But in one significant area, at least, these closest of political allies are at odds.

The problem is the Prime Minister's obsession. He desperately wants to increase the number of self-governing schools. And he seems incapable of accepting reality: that most parents do not, in fact, want their schools to break away from the local council.

This fixation is becoming serious. It is now clear that the Prime Minister is prepared to ride roughshod even over the opposition of many parents. His latest idea is to let church schools break away merely on their governors' say-so, without holding a parental ballot. In short, to get the numbers up, Mr Major would junk a key principle underlying opting out - that it should reflect and increase parental choice. He would discredit a policy meant to liberate schools and parents.

The Prime Minister's zeal is understandable. Opting out can, indeed, offer schools a chance to free themselves from what can be the dead hand of council bureaucracy. But if it is not genuinely optional for parents, then it loses its Tory raison d'etre.

And Mr Major's plan is politically inept. The churches do not like it: their schools already enjoy considerable autonomy and most do not want any more distance from their local council. In the past school year, 15 out of the 4,000 voluntary-aided or church schools conducted ballots of parents, and of those only six voted to opt out.

Mrs Shephard for her part has spotted the storm ahead and is against changing the balloting rules. But she has been unable to convince her boss to swallow his pride and drop his controversial proposals.

So why is Mr Major persisting with an unpopular policy shift that could have bishops denouncing him from their pulpits? Because he now realises that school self-government is unlikely to take root in the school system before the general election. So far, only one in 24 schools has opted out and only a trickle are in the pipeline. Mr Major is a politician in a hurry, worried that Labour will take power and kill the self-government ideal.

He is behaving like many of his predecessors, Labour and Tory, who were too desperate to leave their own institutional mark on the education system. Like them, Mr Major suffers from the illusion that you cannot improve schools unless you reorganise them.

He is mistaken: there are many other ways to raise standards. Instead of flogging a policy that does not want to run, the Prime Minister should listen to Mrs Shephard and instead concentrate on developing schools in their present framework. He could start by trying to raise morale among dejected teachers. The best start would be a period of stability in schools as we come closer to the election, instead of questionable organisational change that an alternative government would quickly unstitch.