Leading article: Popular schools must be allowed to expand

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THE MANY vociferous opponents of the Government's plans to introduce "choice" into the provision of secondary education consistently fail to recognise a simple reality: it already exists. The trouble is that it is not parents who exercise it. The only parties offered a "choice" under the present system are oversubscribed secondary schools, which pick the pupils they want. Those unlucky enough not to be chosen, for whatever reason, have to go somewhere else, more often than not to a failing school.

It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory arrangement, as parents who have tried to get their child into an excellent comprehensive, only to be told that it is full up, will testify. The Government's five-year education plan, unveiled last summer, proposes to change the balance of power in favour of parents. Popular schools will be allowed to expand, with the aim of accommodating almost all the pupils that want to attend. Schools that are badly undersubscribed will have to close. The plan does not go as far as to establish a true market in the provision of secondary education - only the introduction of a voucher system would achieve that - but it will give the users of this public service an unprecedented degree of control.

Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary and New Labour moderniser, is proposing to go further, by bringing forward, by six months, the date at which parents will be able to express a preference over their child's secondary school. This will, in theory, give popular schools around 20 months to boost their capacity by providing more teachers and classrooms. The aim is to maximise the chances of a pupil being accepted by the chosen school.

The Prime Minister should incorporate this idea into Labour's third term manifesto. For one thing, it makes good political sense. Which parent would not welcome a reduction in the stress involved in selecting a child's secondary school? But more importantly, if Mr Blair is serious about devolving power from those who provide public services to those who actually use them, this is the sort of opportunity that he cannot afford to miss.