Leading Article: Counting the cost of parental choice

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The Independent Online
THE DRAMATIC schools reorganisation planned in Warwickshire has aroused strong opposition. In an era when parental choice is supposedly paramount, many families are angry that their wishes have been overridden. 'How,' they might also ask, 'is choice to be maintained when schools are being closed?' It is a complaint echoed around the country. The economics of education are frequently at odds with the ideal of parental freedom, so exposing tensions and contradictions within government policy.

Warwickshire's problem is a common one. The county has too many places for children of primary age, a situation that both the Government and the Audit Commission says it should rectify. Moreover, the schools are organised in an expensive way. Instead of going to the same school until they are 11, many pupils switch to 'middle schools' at 8 or 9 and then into the secondary system at 12 or 13.

Despite its virtues in offering specialist teaching to younger children, this model is flawed and imposes heavy overheads. So Warwickshire is eliminating its middle schools and the first schools that feed them. After closures and mergers, the county expects to have only 197 primary schools, by 1996 compared with 245 now.

Some small villages will lose cherished schools that are vital parts of their communities. Parents may be tempted to appeal to Gillian Shephard. Some will ask the Secretary of State for Education to let schools opt out of council control to prevent closure. Six already have. In Warwickshire and other counties ministers might look favourably on such applications. They have done so in the past: one school threatened with closure was given grant-maintained status even though its roll had fallen to just 19 pupils. The Government needs to fulfil its promise to double the number of opted-out schools by next April, which may give endangered schools some hope.

Mrs Shephard should resist the political temptation to save them. She should stick to guidance issued in June by her own department stating that schools will not normally be allowed to opt out in such circumstances. Only extraordinary local factors should justify exceptions.

This stance would disappoint some parents and slow down the Government's intention to reduce local authority control of schools. But education needs rational planning to ensure that spending is cost-effective. Without such a strategy, parents may enjoy plenty of options; but run-down, poorly resourced, half-full schools are unlikely to serve their children well.

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