LEADING ARTICLE: Time to end the education lottery

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Parents are always disappointed when they fail to get their children into the school of their choice. Some shrug their shoulders and accept it. Some appeal to their local authority. But now 20 parents in the Hampshire village of Denmead have decided to go further. Their children have been refused places in their first - and second - choice schools in rural areas and have instead been allocated to an underperforming inner-city school in Portsmouth. The parents are seeking to challenge that decision in the courts. They say that the local authority must take more account of a parent's choice of school.

Choice is, of course, one of the key principles of John Major's Citizen's Charter and informed choice is supposed to be the driving force for higher standards. The prolonged battles between the Government and the teachers' unions, which cost John Patten his political career, were over the tests needed to provide that information. But choice has more significance than that. Consumer power - in education, health and housing - is the Government's response to the charge that it is removing public services from political control. Empowerment of parent, patient and tenant is supposed to be the panacea for reduced involvement by our elected representatives.

The trouble is that choice in public services will always be limited by availability. Not everyone can go to the most successful school, nor to the best hospital. So, for some, choice will appear to be a hollow sham. But does that mean, as one of the Hampshire parents believes, that it would be better to end the "pretence" of effective choice? Far from it.

Today, all the pressure is in the opposite direction - for more and better information, not less. The surge in complaints about school placements in recent years is healthy. It represents parental assertion, as opposed to a passive acceptance of the decisions of local education authority bureaucracy.

Rather, there are two lessons from this case. First, choice depends on there being a degree of flexibility in the system. A supermarket which planned precisely what each customer would buy would rapidly find itself with no customers. Choice with no options is not choice at all. So there needs to be scope for schools to expand and contract, if as many parents as possible are to feel that their wishes have been respected.

Second, and more crucially, education policy needs to be directed now to reducing the significance of choice of school. It is the variation in quality of schools, exposed at its rawest in the examination league tables, that makes the school decision so agonising. Schools will never deliver uniform standards - that would be an absurd objective of policy. But any state-funded school should guarantee a decent basic education to all the children who attend it, or it should close as failing its core purpose.

Ministers and education authorities now have the tools to identify the schools that fail to deliver. The next challenge is to use that information to ensure a proper education both to the children of the leafy shires and the children of the inner city. It must cease to be a matter of whether their parents pick the winning ticket in the annual education lottery.

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