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Editorial: Hello doli

This has been a tough week to be 10, and a threatening one for parents of 10-year-olds. For good, industrious boys and girls (and their mothers and fathers), it has meant suspense, sleepless nights and often disappointment,as news has arrived about secondary school places.

For the bad and the feckless, the trouble is all in the future as the politicians compete to invent new sanctions against their parents, and Labour's Jack Straw leaves Home Secretary Michael Howard standing with his promise to drop doli incapax , the medieval doctrine that declares 10- to 13-year-olds incapable of evil intent. Most 10-year-olds may know the difference between right and wrong, as Mr Straw claims, but it is hard to imagine the most delinquent campaigning for the return of doli, whatever else they get up to in the streets.

The theme of 10-year-olds at the crossroads came through strongly on Monday evening with a dramatic juxtaposition of images on the television screen. Channel 4's Cutting Edge told the stories of a group of London families who set out to choose the right secondary school but found, after putting their unprepared children through punishing selective tests, that parental choice was a myth. All the children showed promise. Only one achieved her top-of-the-tables choice; one more settled for the local, improving comprehensive. The overwhelming impression was of anxious, disappointed young faces. Is this how choice and diversity shape all our futures?

Cut to the 10 o'clock news and the untidier young faces behind the headlines are there because Mr Straw and Mr Howard are both targeting the families who are exercising neither choice nor discipline. There is much room for improvement in existing policies on youth crime, and for tackling its causes constructively, and we must hope that this is done coolly after the election without throwing the heavy mob at everything that moves.

The choice dilemma is acknowledged to be worst in inner London, but stories of children unable to find a place in any local school multiply all round the country as the effects of grant-maintained status, selective quotas and the Greenwich judgment combine. As the Audit Commission reported last December in Trading Places, current arrangements are not working well and one in five parents do not get their first choice.

However the next Government solves the thorny admissions problem, something must be done to restore the "duty to provide" a place for every child, which John Patten fudged in his 1993 Act.

Good, bad or indifferent, the child on the threshold of life - not dogma - should be at the heart of policies.

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