Leading Article: Tory school of false logic

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FOR THE PAST seven years, the Conservatives have pursued an impossible dream: the creation of a market in schools, which would allow parents' preferences to be satisfied, while at the same time raising educational standards. The model was the high street. Just as customers can switch greengrocers if they don't like the tomatoes they are offered - some Tory ministers and MPs actually used this analogy - so parents should be able to switch schools if they want a better education for their children. The enterprise shows that ministers understand little about education - and perhaps even less about tomatoes.

In a leaflet delivered to homes throughout England last week, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, strives mightily to convince parents that they have choice. The word occurs on almost every other page. But what exactly is this choice? Mr Patten can only explain it by straining the language to its limits: 'As a general rule, you now have a right to a place in the school you want unless all the places at the school have been given to pupils who have a stronger claim to a place at that school.' To which Tweedledee furnishes the best response: 'If it was so, it might be; and if were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't' This is early days for the Tory market in schools; it has come gradually into effect since 1988. Yet already more parents than ever are complaining that they cannot get their third choice of school, never mind their first. It will inevitably get worse. This may seem a paradox, but the reasons are familiar to most educationists and economists and were patiently explained to ministers before they embarked on their preposterous project.

The Tory market rests on two innovations. First, it gives parents the theoretical right to enrol their child at any school with vacancies, even if it is miles from their home in another local authority area. Second, money - including the money to pay teachers - follows the child. If a parent in, say, Richmond chooses to send a child to a school in Surrey, Richmond council must transfer the necessary funds. The theory is that unpopular schools - and councils running them - will be forced by impending bankruptcy to improve standards.

But theories, as Tories used to tell Marxists, do not work. Schools are not like tomatoes. The nature of a tomato is not changed by the people who buy it. But, as any teacher will tell you, the most important thing about a school is the nature of its intake. Snobbery certainly comes into this, but you do not need to be a snob to prefer a school where the parents are well-heeled: in these penurious times, the money they can raise will make a significant difference to the school budget.

So parents clamour to get places at the schools in middle-class areas. Then 'criteria' are needed to decide the lucky ones. The world being as it is, the criteria are apt to favour the middle- classes who are, in any case, better at manipulating the rules. Feeling cheated, the unlucky parents take their children to unpopular schools, usually in working-class areas, with dozens of empty places. In the past, councils might have tried to boost such schools by pouring in extra money or equipment or experienced teachers. Now, the requirement is that money must be strictly tied to numbers. Such schools are condemned to slow decline, serving parents who are not customers but disgruntled conscripts.

Parents, who theoretically have more choice, therefore find themselves with less. Schools are either full or so poor (in money, morale and pupil intake) that no sensible parents want to send their children there. Frustrated parents might get a better deal if over-subscribed schools were allowed to expand. But the Treasury, rightly, would argue that it would be ruinously expensive when there are empty classrooms in other schools.

Mr Patten and his colleagues should abandon their market theories. Parents do not care much about choice anyway; they would rather have a decent school down the road and a guarantee of a place in it. Until he can offer that, Mr Patten should desist from stuffing his tortuous prose through our letter-boxes.