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Tories call in foreign legion

A brace of free marketeers jetted into Edinburgh this week to reinforce the Conservative Party's plans to give parents completely free choice of school, and for schools to run themselves.

The party's seminar on education heard that a host of other countries now embrace various forms of choice, in which "money follows the pupil".

Parents would be given vouchers and encouraged to sponsor their own schools with taxpayers' money.

Countries cited as adopting such policies to a greater or lesser extent include Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Chile as well as Milwaukee and Boston in the United States. The pre-election message the Tories are trying to convey is that they, not the other parties, are in the mainstream of progressive thinking and that Scotland is slipping further behind - even when compared with the varieties of school being encouraged by the Labour Government in England.

Brian Monteith, Tory spokesman on public services, attacked the "complacency" of the educational establishment in Scotland which took pride in what were often achievements of the past.

Mr Monteith (who writes in The TES Scotland this week) said that the present system was failing teachers, pupils and parents, for whom choice was only available if they were well enough off to afford to buy into the catchment area of a popular school.

It was the most disadvantaged communities that were losing out, Mr Monteith said. Placing requests were now "saturated" and they had no economic power to escape from "failing" schools.

The Tories' favourite reforming nation is Sweden where sweeping changes were introduced by a Social Democratic government in the early 1990s.

Sweden was now "a world champion in educational choice", according to Mikael Sandstrom, a political adviser to the Swedish Moderate Party. Some schools are even allowed to make a profit.

In a paper for the seminar, Mr Sandstrom said Sweden had "no limits on the establishment of new schools", although they had to comply with the national curriculum, were not allowed to charge term fees and had to avoid discrimination on race and other grounds.

The result was that 560 primaries and more than 200 secondary schools were now independently run in Sweden, compared with what had been a tiny sector in the early 1990s. Competition between them and with municipal schools was found to have raised standards all round.

Mr Sandstrom said the policy was well-nigh irreversible: 90 per cent of parents supported school choice, and 60 per cent believed that competition between schools was a good thing. Six of the seven parties in the Swedish parliament back the reforms (the exception being the former Communists).

"Choice doesn't solve all problems," Mr Sandstrom said, "but who ever said so? School choice, however, has been an essential element to reform education and promote freedom."

James O'Shaughnessy, research director at the Policy Exchange think-tank, said that full choice of school would mean that "instead of parents fighting to get school places, schools fight to get the parents because they bring money and schools will become much more competitive to attract them - just like any other product".

Mr O'Shaughnessy believed that choice would lead to smaller schools - and more of them - because parents were worried about large schools. There would be a strong ethos and discipline because parents were "desperate for it". School transport, one of the key ingredients in giving parents greater access to schools, was a strong feature in the Netherlands and the United States.

Andrew Haldenby, a former Conservative Party researcher who co-founded the Reform think-tank, told his Scottish comrades that even the reforms of the Tony Blair administration in England only allowed for diversity at the margin. There was still too much central planning and regulation. But Mr Haldenby acknowledged that this was "continued, not started, by new Labour".

England was not pursuing a "real choice agenda", Mr Haldenby suggested.

Parents who chose an independent education for their child were not funded by the taxpayer, for example. This was in stark contrast to the health service south of the border, where patients could choose a private hospital and have it paid for out of the public purse.

He also questioned the quality of an externally run assessment and curriculum system. Schools should be allowed to choose here too, he said.

But Fredrik Erixon, chief economist of the Swedish think-tank Timbro felt some national control was necessary as an assurance to taxpayers that money was well spent.

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