LEADING ARTICLE : Looking after their own

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FOR the past 17 years, Tory education policy has had one overriding aim: to help the middle classes keep their offspring out of schools that have too many rough children from poor homes. All else - talk of parental choice, diversity of schools, differentiation among pupils - is waffle. Assisted places at public schools, city technology colleges, schools opting out of local council control are among the devices ministers have dreamt up. Last week, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, brought forward another. Henceforth, a school will be allowed to select up to 15 per cent of its intake on grounds of ability and headteachers will no longer be discouraged from interviewing prospective parents and pupils.

The middle classes in search of a decent school for their children are not to be lightly dismissed. They will cripple themselves with huge mortgage debts to buy houses in the "right" catchment areas. They will endure the most tedious sermons to prove the Christian commitment required to secure a coveted church school place. Even Tony Blair will pay almost any price - in his case, completely changing his party's education policy - to get the best for his children. Living in Islington, where the schools have many deprived children, he sent his son to the opted-out London Oratory, which has taken good care to keep the rough element out. Nobody should blame him or any other middle-class parent for these ambitions. Just one or two deprived children in a class can cause immense amounts of disruption, dragging down the academic standard.

This is why parental choice has been such a powerful rallying cry for the Tories. But it was always doomed to create disappointment. If parents were allowed to select schools, schools would inevitably end up selecting them. This is because the most important thing about a school is not the teachers or the buildings or the books and equipment but the pupils. The attraction of a good school, like a good club or a good restaurant, is precisely its exclusivity. In the private sector, parental choice should, theoretically, rule supreme. In practice, the schools do the selection. Successful schools, which have a surplus of applicants, do not expand or open new branches; they raise entry requirements.

The Tories, absurdly, have tried to create a market in the state sector. The result is frustrated expectations. Last year, a record 46,000 parents appealed against offers of places; only 13,000 won. The Government cannot allow over-subscribed schools to expand - putting up new classrooms while others stand empty would be ruinously expensive. And successful schools do not want to expand; they know that opening their doors wider would simply dilute their quality. The only solution, therefore, is to strengthen selection and to rig the rules in favour of the middle classes.

John Major, it is well known, would like a return to the grammar schools which, along with cream-and-chocolate-coloured train carriages, he remembers from the 1950s of his childhood. He won't get them. The grammar schools, selecting the top 20 or 25 per cent for a privileged education, entailed branding all the others as failures and dumping them in the secondary moderns. By the 1960s, it was plain that no middle-class parent and no aspirant working-class parent could abide their child being put in the

latter category.

So the Tories are left fiddling around with the comprehensive system in an attempt to ensure that their middle-class supporters get an even better deal from it than they already do. The eleven-plus at least had the merit of allowing a smattering of rough, but bright, children to get into the elite grammar schools. Interviews, as everybody knows, are just a form of social selection. (The official version, that schools will be looking for pupil "motivation" and parental "support", amounts to the same thing.) They will allow more middle-class parents to get into "good" schools - which are always the schools with the best exam results - and thus displace less privileged children. Somebody still has to educate the deprived and disruptive but, with luck, they will be confined to schools where they need not trouble the children of potential Tory voters. These schools will occasionally be visited by Her Majesty's Inspectors, and the teachers denounced for failure. Otherwise, they will be conveniently forgotten.