All state schools should be made legally independent corporations able to charge fees and parents should be given means-tested vouchers to help pay them, says Robert Skidelsky in his long-awaited pamphlet for Politeia, the right-wing think tank.
Lord Skidelsky, professor of political economy at Warwick University, chairman of the Social Market Foundation and one-time member of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, says standards can only be raised through setting up a competitive market in education. Two other possible strategies - the "top-down" method of ordering teachers and schools to behave in a certain way and the creation of a meritocratic system based on selection - would not work.
Successive Conservative governments since 1987 have concentrated on the "top-down" approach, introducing the national curriculum and its associated assessment system. But he doubts whether government has the knowledge, or should have the power, to control the content of education to this degree. And he says the attempt has in any case been unsuccessful because teachers have been unsympathetic to the Government's aims.
"Ministers will face one way: their troops will face another way. Generals cannot win battles on their own," he comments.
A return to selection, even if it were a more flexible version of the old tripartite system, would be impossible because of public memories of the 11-plus.
"Some bits of history are simply irreversible", says Lord Skidelsky.
He is also sceptical about "the currently fashionable view that it should be possible to capture the advantages of a differentiated system within non-selective schools through streaming and setting".
"This may be true in theory," he says. "But it ignores the difficulty of developing an ethos which can support the effective use of selection within schools set up on the comprehensive principle."
Under his scheme all state schools would be turned into legally independent, non-profit-making private corporations, putting them on the same basis as most private schools and all universities. This would abolish the legal distinction between grant-maintained and local authority schools and, even more importantly, between state and private education.
State intervention would be limited to laying down a period of compulsory schooling and setting a legal framework, covering health and safety and civilised standards, within which all schools would have to work. The statutory requirement for exam boards to offer only syllabuses leading to GCSE would be abolished, so that schools would be free to take other exams like O-levels.
All parents of school-age children would be given means-tested vouchers whose average value would be set at the current cost of educating a state school pupil. Rich parents would get less and poor parents more.
A Question of Standards: Raising standards through choice by Robert Skidelsky is available from Politeia, 28 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DB, tel: 0171 240 5070, price Pounds 5.