The growth of parent power

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Parents should be able to hasten the closure of failing schools and set up their own where they believe they can do better, the Government will say in next month's education white paper.

Ministers are considering the idea of allowing new schools to open in shopping centres or office buildings as part of plans to make it easier for parents, businesses and others to set up schools.

The white paper will be a Faustian pact between ultra-Blairites who want to see greater market forces in education and the group close to Ruth Kelly that wants to prevent successful schools from cherry-picking middle-class pupils, according to a source with close links to Downing Street and the Department for Education and Skills.

In a keynote speech in July, the Education Secretary highlighted Labour's failure to cut the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families.

She said: "We need to think about why children from more deprived backgrounds do not always have the opportunity to access the better schools, and what sensibly we might be able to do about that."

Her advisers are hopeful about winning the Prime Minister's backing for measures to ensure problem pupils are distributed more fairly among schools, relieving pressure on "sink schools".

They believe Conor Ryan, who replaced education minister Andrew (now Lord) Adonis as Tony Blair's education adviser, will be more sympathetic towards measures which reduce the power of oversubscribed schools to select pupils.

He is known to support banded admissions, in which schools must take a proportion of pupils from each ability or socio-economic group.

The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said it suspected few parents would want to open their own schools.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman, said: "There may be a small minority of parents who are keen, but realistically most will not have the time, expertise or inclination. There are also few cases, fortunately, where parents would want to close their children's schools.

"All this talk about parent power seems like spin after a year when parents have become more excluded from schools."

Efforts to make admissions fairer are likely to be welcomed by unions. But plans to give parents the power to call in Ofsted and for inspectors to close failing schools will get a cooler reception from teachers.

A Downing Street source said there is strong interest in developing systems so that parents could set up schools quickly in buildings that were not originally designed for education.

These could include empty office blocks or units in business parks - the types of building which have attracted interest from low-cost private-school companies such as Global Education Management Systems (Gems).

The idea is also being explored in other countries, including New Zealand, where space on the third floor of a Christchurch shopping centre has been converted into a small school.

Frustration over the Government's failure to deliver real choice to many parents will see the heads of successful schools given financial incentives to expand, and they will be encouraged to take over their failing neighbours.

Schools will not be able to stop the expansion of popular schools, even if this affects their own viability. So far, only 20 schools have applied for more places through the popular schools expansion programme.

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