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Parents and politics:a tale of two ministers

There is a dramatic contrast between the education systems north and south of the border. The Scottish Education Bill now before Parliament provides for a modest change in parental rights by taking care of the "Balfron factor" whereby pupils have been excluded from a local school because of pressure on places from farther afield. In England, however, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has issued a draft circular that would allow schools to select up to 15 per cent of pupils on ability and encourage interviews with parents before a child is admitted.

It is clear that Michael Forsyth is a more faithful adherent to parental choice than Gillian Shephard, his Cabinet colleague. Mrs Shephard's plans are intended to strengthen the hand of schools at the expense of parents. Until now a small proportion of places in schools south of the border could be allotted to pupils with a special gift, for example in the arts. But the setting aside of 15 per cent of places would be for children with generally high ability. Some parents would benefit, those whose children were bright and who would thereby be placed in a good school.

But far more parents would be adversely affected if some schools used their new power to re-establish selection. The nature of schools admitting high-ability pupils would be changed but also that of those from which pupils had been creamed off. Mrs Shephard argues that schools should be allowed to determine their own character by choosing pupils. But for many schools and parents that character would be determined by the actions of another school and not their own.

There is an incentive for headteachers to fill the maximum number of places with able pupils. The Government's annual tables of exam performance count for more south of the border than in Scotland, and success breeds more success. That is what is meant by "magnet" schools.

Government records recently opened under the 30-year rule recount the controversy about the introduction of comprehensive education. At least in the 1960s the issue was thoroughly debated, to the point of exhaustion. Mrs Shephard plans to undermine the basis of the comprehensive system south of the border but to do so without arguing the principle. Is a school a resource for its community, or does it write its own mission statement, choose its roll and run its finances?

Mrs Shephard would like to see more schools opt to become grant maintained. She evidently believes that if local authority schools had scope over pupil choice like their GM counterparts, they would be encouraged to bid goodbye to their council owners. That is, schools would take the initiative rather than parents.

At best Mr Forsyth has a different agenda. At worst he realises that Mrs Shephard's objectives, which may run into legal and political trouble from parents or teachers, would be regarded at present as untenable in Scotland. So he is still in the business of supporting the consumer. If his aim is to reduce the influence of education authorities, he expects that parents will be his allies, not self-seeking schools.

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