Now here's a real challenge for 'inclusion'
The story was splashed across the Daily Mail that morning. When I arrived in the office, I was confronted by a colleague who said: "Labour will have to change its policy on opting-out now, won't it?" "Not at all!" I replied sagely. "Mr Blair will argue that the Tories have put him into this pickle: they have made council comprehensives, like his local ones in Islington, into sink schools. Why should he plunge his child into a mess that was not of his making? When a Labour government is elected, he will say, it will return opted-out schools to council control and treat all schools equally and fairly. Parents will then have no need to look eight miles across London for a decent education." My colleague was unimpressed by my sophistry.
And indeed I was proved wrong within 24 hours. David Blunkett went on the radio explaining that, by remarkable coincidence, Labour was already re-designing its policy on grant-maintained schools.
At that moment I realised that New Labour really was new. My forecast had betrayed an Old Labour mind set. If Mr Blair had deployed my argument, he would have been making the tribute that vice pays to virtue, rather as Tory MPs talk about the sanctity of family values while shagging their secretaries.
The point was not that Mr Blair was guilty of hypocrisy nor even that the party's policy had to be changed to suit his personal convenience. Rather, Mr Blair saw nothing wrong with a system that encouraged middle-class parents like himself to maximise advantages for their own children at other children's expense.
There should be no doubt that this was the point of opting out. As Simon Jenkins, the Times columnist, once observed, the policy was designed to allow middle-class parents to keep their offspring away from undesirable elements, such as council-estate children; and all else was waffle. The invention of foundation school status, I judge, will enable them to continue doing so, with a few minor modifications.
I accept that there have been other advantages in grant-maintained status, including more money and freedom from meddlesome council bureaucrats. I accept, too, that the opted-out schools vary enormously. But, for most, control over admissions is crucial, and that control is exercised in order to keep out difficult children from difficult families.
If that is not so, why are the schools making such a fuss about retaining control? Why do they so often interview parents or send out detailed application forms, demanding information about parental occupation and children's hobbies? Why is the proportion of children eligible for free school meals so much lower in grant-maintained than in county schools (13.5 per cent against 22.6 per cent)?
The admissions issue is not confined to the grant-maintained sector. I have written before about the iniquities of the present system, but I make no apology for returning to them. Almost anything, including a completely market-led system, which allowed over-subscribed schools to expand at will, would be better.
Consider the figures on admissions appeals issued by the Department for Education and Employment earlier this month. The number of appeals lodged by parents has almost doubled since 19912 - from 3.2 per cent of total admissions to 5.4 per cent. The latter figure may not look very high but it conceals some dramatic local variations. In Birmingham and Bath in 19956, parents appealed against 16 per cent of secondary school admissions decisions; in south Gloucestershire, 21 per cent. For the London area, the figures are even more remarkable: 18 per cent in Lewisham and Westminster, 19 per cent in Camden, 20 per cent in Sutton, 24 per cent in Hounslow, 32 per cent in Waltham Forest and, almost incredibly, 37 per cent in Enfield.
Such areas are the true test of whether "choice" legislation has been successful in meeting parental aspirations. Only 0.8 per cent of Suffolk's secondary admissions led to appeals but that merely reflects the difficulties in a rural authority of finding more than one school within daily travelling distance.
A system that creates so much dissatisfaction cannot be said to be working well. It may, I suppose, be argued that appeals are an inevitable corollary of a system that is trying to respond to parental preferences, that a frustrated choice is better than no choice at all. But what is the effect on children and on their attitudes to school of knowing that, in their parents' opinion, the one they attend is second or third-best? What is the effect on school ethos and teacher morale of knowing that many, perhaps most, of their pupils and parents are reluctant conscripts?
If we cannot do better than this, we should return to the 11-plus, which provided a simple, standardised, easily-understood benchmark for admissions. Children from poor homes may have been unfairly disadvantaged, but at least they stood a sporting chance. Now, when so much depends on parental footwork, on the availability of transport and on the social prejudices (often unconscious) of the teachers who handle admissions, the odds are stacked against them.
Can we do better? Here's how. Let the grant-maintained schools keep their special status, complete with preferential funding and freedom from council control. Let them call themselves whatever they like: foundation schools, centres of excellence, Kenneth Baker Memorial Schools. Let them, indeed, continue largely to control their admissions, interviewing parents and, if they want to be perfectly straightforward, obtaining in advance written covenants for contributions to school funds. But let there be just one condition: they are required, automatically and unconditionally, to allocate a place to any applicant whose child is eligible for free school meals.
But wouldn't they be flooded out with such children? If they are so, damn good. They should welcome the challenge. If, as the sector's supporters argue, grant-maintained status holds the key to educational success, we must surely make haste to ensure that our most deprived children benefit. And if Mr Blair is as anxious to promote "inclusion" as he keeps saying he is, he will naturally continue to send his children to the London Oratory.