How many parents can be persuaded not to do the best for their child? That was the task that Fiona Millar, an ex-aide to the Prime Minister's wife, set herself in her Channel 4 documentary last week. Parental choice, she argued, leads to social segregation between school catchment areas and a large gap in attainment between the best and the worst. It is true that the British school system is the most socially segregated in the Western world.
That far, I can go with Fiona Millar. But I cannot believe that she has the right answer.
Starting where we do, there are two options: either we can try to extend choice to everybody or we can abandon the attempt altogether. The Government is committed to choice in three senses. It is gradually replacing the "bog-standard comprehensive" (a term helpfully coined by Fiona Millar's partner, Alastair Campbell) with new institutions: city academies and specialist schools. It is reforming the curriculum so that, with the sophisticated use of computers and the support of classroom assistants, learning can be more tailored to the child's needs. But also, and this is where the dispute really begins, it means that parents should be able to choose one school over another on the basis of value-added league tables.
The second option is to curtail that choice which already exists. We should, instead, implore parents to forswear the right to choose and use the nearest school. In some accounts, this becomes a demand that choice be eradicated and that parents should effectively be forced to send their child to the local school, whether they want to or not. I can see that this is intended to produce a better social mix and to ensure that the poorest children get a better education. I would probably share every one of Fiona Millar's objectives. And yet I think the strategy she proposes would be a disaster.
If choice is taken away, how will the middle class respond? Will they conclude that their own loss has been more than offset by the gains to social cohesion? Will they comply by sending their children to the local school? It is very optimistic, indeed faintly romantic, to think that they all will. Eliminating choice would surely increase the postcode premium, estimated by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors to be 12 per cent, which comes from being in the catchment area of a prestigious school.
Many parents whose attempts to move house are unsuccessful will simply flee to the private sector. At the moment, 7.3 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 are educated privately. The national average has been stable for a long time but that is not because everybody shares Fiona Millar's view. In 2001, 53 per cent of interviewees told Mori that they would send their child to a private school if they could afford it. There are more parents who are prepared to pay for their children than there are places available. Not surprisingly, fees rose 7.2 per cent in 2002 and a further 7 per cent in 2003. The private sector only needs to increase its capacity and it will find parents queuing up.
Another reason that children are not educated privately is that parents cannot afford the exorbitant fees. For that reason, 64 per cent of people supported an equivalent to the assisted places scheme in 2001. The demand would be especially strong if the various attempts to replicate selective private-sector education at a fraction of the usual cost, such as the new school proposed for Queen's Park in London, are successful. Selective education at pound;1,000 per annum would alter this argument decisively.
The consequences in London would be especially severe, where 14 per cent of children are in independent schools.
It would be a catastrophic error to dismantle choice in the state sector.
Parental choice keeps middle-class parents in the system. It is no good appealing to people's better natures, imploring them to think of other people's children who need more help. This argument appeals only to the already-converted. If choice is eliminated, the market will respond to the opportunity. Then the result will be that the middle classes will abandon the state system and the solidarity to which Fiona Millar appeals will be hugely eroded.
Phil Collins is director of the Social Market Foundation