Political row neglects the real debate

10th February 2006 at 00:00
So the bizarre episode of Labour MPs' rebellion over the education white paper grinds on. Bizarre because the row has never been about education but about politics - about the waning power of a third-term Prime Minister and the misconception of those on the left of his party that the changes are about the reintroduction of selection. Though the Government chose to spin its plans as a radical reform which would free schools from the grip of local education authorities, the white paper was too much of a fudge to make much difference to the status quo. Most heads are not interested in belonging to the new category of trust schools. Financial incentives might pull them in. But there are none to be had. Local authority power over schools has been weakening for nearly 20 years. In the past five years, foundation status has attracted only 51 takers despite the chance of freedoms very similar to those enjoyed by trust schools.

Yet this week's promise to make part of the admissions code statutory to improve disadvantaged pupils' chances of a place at a successful school is welcome. So is the announcement of a stronger role for admissions forums.

Will it work? Will schools like the London Oratory where Tony Blair sent his two eldest children really stop interviewing prospective parents? As Mr Blair candidly admitted this week: "Whatever system you put in place, middle-class parents will do their best for their kids." Our front-page story reveals the emergence of yet another admissions quagmire. A third of the 27 academies exercise the right to select some pupils by aptitude.

Where distance from home to school is a factor they use a bewildering array of measures. The 200 academies envisaged by the Government will not be subject to the new admissions rules.

For most teachers and heads the Westminster wrangling over trust schools is a distraction. The Labour rebels say these schools will threaten the chances of the poorest pupils, ministers say they will improve them.

Teachers suspect that they will do neither. It is time to move on from the political debate and to start the educational one.

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