Leading Article: Giving parents greater choice

AS THEY prepare for the new school year, many parents are discovering a gap between the rhetoric and the reality of 'parental choice'. Like the Russian economy, education under the Tories is at an uneasy point half-way to a market system. Demand for education has been set free, but supply has not. In many respects - ranging from who may start a new school, to how an existing school may spend the money it receives from government, and how schools are opened and closed - central control over education remains as stifling as ever.

Yet the ideas of the new National Health Service could also be applied to schools. Just as housing associations and local councils can team up with private house-builders to provide low-cost homes, so could headteachers open schools in 'education parks', where high-quality facilities could be shared with other schools, colleges or universities. Like NHS fund-holding doctors who send their patients to private hospitals when the local public hospital cannot treat them straight away, schools could buy in language teaching or the use of sports halls from companies or other schools. A paper published this morning by the Social Market Foundation points out that such practices are still isolated but could be more widely applied.

Michael Fallon, the paper's author, wants to go further still. He believes that the central flaw of the current system is that bad schools are not allowed to fail, and consequently the opening of new schools, with the new approaches and new ideas they might bring, is stymied. At the moment, a new school can open only if Whitehall believes there is a 'basic need' for more places in the area. If existing local schools have vacancies - no matter how much parents would prefer to send their children elsewhere - then opening a new one is almost impossible. This was the rule that is said to have prevented state funding of Islamia school in north-west London earlier this month.

Mr Fallon, a junior education minister until he lost his parliamentary seat in 1992, believes that civil servants should instead let new schools open, whether or not there is a 'basic need' for more places, if they can drum up enough interest from local parents. With access to capital and buildings equal to that of existing schools, he thinks, new schools would exert competitive pressure on the country's worst schools.

This approach has its drawbacks: school closures would affect the least advantaged children, and moving to a new institution would be disruptive. There is doubt about how much competition could be achieved - for simple geography means that even in cities, parents are unlikely to have more than two or three secondary schools to choose from. Local councils and teachers might resist closures dictated by the 'markets' as much as they today resist closures by bureaucratic fiat. And though the proposals would improve value for money in the long run, they would initially add to the education budget rather than reduce it.

With its current weakness, John Major's government is unlikely to take up Mr Fallon's ideas. But the former education minister is right in identifying what is wrong with the current system - and right in implying that the Tories must either go further in reforming education, or revert to the old system and try to make it work better.