Leading Article: An obsession with opting out

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fund, London

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer - CCNP, Hedge Fu...

Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Multicast, Low Latency

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-CCIE, Mul...

Network Infrastructure Engineer

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Infrastructure Engineer (...

Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Multicast)

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, BGP, Mult...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition