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Popular choice

The messages coming out of Chequers and the House of Commons this week were obviously more mangled than Conservative spin-doctors had intended, but there was one strong educational thread running through both. The extension of parental choice through the expansion of popular schools is going to be up there as a key blue-water issue at least until the election and, whoever wins, to haunt the admissions system thereafter.

The Government debacle in the division lobbies during Monday's third reading of the Education Bill was really the story of a clause mislaid twice by a careless Whip: the clause that was to allow grant-maintained schools to expand their premises without seeking permission (page 5). Though the Prime Minister wisely did not promise that this decision would be reversed in the House of Lords, he did insist that he would press for GM schools to have the new power "either before or after the election."

Which brings us back to the Cabinet manifesto meeting on the same day at his country home, where one of the hottest education rumours was that all successful schools would be offered the right to expand to meet popular demand. As rumours go, this one is plausible, since it has been a constant theme feeding into Tory manifesto-making from the Thatcher era on, along with its close cousin, vouchers, the removal of another layer of responsibility from local education authorities, and the imposition of a national funding formula. (Expect to hear more of all of them in the next couple of months).

For the Government, any mention of the expansion of popular (especially GM) schools has the special attraction that it gives Ministers the chance to jeer at Labour leaders Tony Blair and Harriet Harman over their school choice, a chance exploited this week. But however superficial and facile this debate may become, both main parties are on dodgy ground when it comes to simultaneously satisfying parental choice and managing the local schools system efficiently and in the interests of all children, because the two aims are never completely compatible.

The Labour party claimed that they could be in one of David Blunkett's first policy documents, but has not yet produced a convincing admissions and appeals blueprint. The Government has tried to pretend that the problem didn't exist, which was why it found the Audit Commission's recent report Trading Places so embarrassing, with its verdict of wasteful mismatches between pupils and places, parental choice and market forces, and its call for more systematic planning.

The conflict between two pet Government themes - extending parental choice and removing surplus places - is fairly clear, but some of the other effects of letting market forces rip in sought-after schools are more insidious. The most crucial of these is the knock-on effect that expansion in one school can have on children in its neighbours, where improvement schemes may become harder to implement as cash dwindles, and the fact that the worst school in town can't be closed down as easily as a bad greengrocer when numbers drop (though see also James Tooley on this page).

However convincing the arguments for giving parents their first choice of school when space exists on the premises, in practical terms it is less clear how many would physically have the space to expand, without building on playgrounds or playing-fields, moving on to split sites, or becoming so large or crowded that they lost their appeal.

But some evidence of how a scheme might work is now available from Wales, where John Redwood launched his own Popular Schools Initiative as Welsh Secretary. One hundred schools have put in bids for extra cash from the Pounds 27 million earmarked, and 24 have been successful, though some of their heads admit that the scheme is divisive. But, like other divisive schemes before it, the extra money for building was irresistible. Has the Conservative party costed its manifesto commitments yet?

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