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Market alone cannot close social divide

The world has gone topsy-turvy. One of the most progressive and radical ideas for schools, which could divert millions of pounds to the education of the poorest children, is being championed by the Tories.

Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, this week affirmed his commitment to the "pupil premium", a policy that would see extra funding follow pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and which has also won the Liberal Democrats' backing.

Mr Gove's warnings about the deepening social equalities in the education system could hardly be more timely. As The TES reports (page 10), government consultants have been researching why England's school system is not fully "world class". Their answer is that a child's performance at a school in England is still more closely tied to their family's social background than is the case in many other countries.

So the Conservatives should be applauded for highlighting that pernicious link and backing a bold idea to break it.

Under David Cameron's leadership, the party has made some encouraging noises, promising schools greater autonomy and roundly criticising the top-down pressures of the testing system. But, just like Labour, it remains only too willing to promise more league table measures and prescribe in detail how five-year-olds should be taught to read.

Mr Gove suggests the pupil premium would be an incentive for schools to choose the most disadvantaged children, but then emphasises that real choice would be up to parents. Under his proposed voucher-style system, families would, in theory, be able to pick whatever approach to teaching they preferred, "whether it's the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner or Thomas Arnold".

Yet the suggestion that such a free market approach can improve social equality runs counter to the evidence. The Tories have been inspired by state-funded independent schools in Sweden, yet their freedoms will soon be curtailed because Swedish ministers fear they do not operate on a level field.

Offering a premium to take disadvantaged pupils has the potential to provide increased support and better teaching. But such a plan can only be successful within a framework which encourages mixed school intakes and discourages the spread of sink schools. A free market approach without proper regulation will do nothing to help this.

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