How to give parents real choice

What middle-class parents want is simple: schools that guarantee good exam results and keep their children away from the rougher sort who will drag down behaviour and distract the teachers' attention. What schools want is equally simple: bright children from supportive homes (usually, but not always, middle-class) who will boost exam results and work quietly in lessons. In their latest education policy, launched last Tuesday, the Tories try to pretend that these wishes can be perfectly matched - as they can, provided that a million or so children of below-average ability and unfavoured family background can be herded into separate schools and forgotten. Headteachers would be free to select pupils on whatever grounds they wished, including ability. If a child was turned away, or expelled during its school career, there would be no appeal. Schools that had lots of applications would be free to expand (and receive extra funds for doing so), while places in less popular schools stayed empty. The Tories would not bother to rescue these "failing schools", which would just wither away as, presumably, would the children inside them.

Be in no doubt that the Tories would revive the selective system of the 1950s, right down to the preferential funding that grammar schools received, since that would be the effect of the proposed £3bn for schools that wished to expand. The only difference is that the Tories would apparently allow schools to select on behaviour and parental motivation, as well as on ability, thus excluding those bright scallywags from disadvantaged homes who used to get through the 11-plus. In the circumstances, it seems sensible for the Tories to ditch Labour's aim to send half the population to university. The secondary moderns, from which very few got to higher education, will be back with a vengeance.

The Tories' policies are reactionary, not just conservative. And given that, during their years in power, they closed down hundreds of good schools so as to remove "surplus places" (instead of using falling child numbers to cut class sizes), their promise now to create 500,000 extra places in order to give parents more choice simply takes the breath away. But these are the ramblings of a party that still faces years in opposition.

More worrying - because more likely to come into effect - are Labour's policies, officially launched a couple of days after the Tories'. Labour is also besotted with choice, and proposes more city academies and more "faith schools" to create "diversity". But the proposals are flawed for three reasons. First, it is difficult to give parents choice without giving schools choice and thus reintroducing selection when applicants exceed places. Second, the choice itself alters the nature of the product being chosen. What makes a "good school" good, above all else, is its pupils. Even the most dismal inner-city comprehensive, with the most down-at-heel teachers, would miraculously improve (and then attract better teachers) if you transferred, say, the pupils of Winchester or Rugby to it. Third, calls for diversity betray confusion about the point of a public education system in a liberal, meritocratic society. It is to try and reduce the enormous diversities in children's home backgrounds and thus go some way to equalising their life chances. Uniformity is a good thing in schools. Ideally, the millionaire's child and the cleaner's child, unequal in almost everything else, should at least get the same education. Instead, our education system widens inequalities.

Next to home background and parental support, the most important influence on pupils' achievement is their peer group. (Quality of teaching does make a difference, but comes way down the list.) Put disadvantaged, low-ability children together and they will drag each other down. Put privileged, high-ability children together and they pull each other up. Give every school a fair mix or a "balanced intake" - rich and poor, dim and bright - and everybody benefits. The research to this effect is pretty conclusive.

The aim of a centre-left government should be to maximise the number of schools with balanced intakes. This is difficult to achieve, but not impossible, and it is perfectly compatible with choice and diversity. Labour should scrap catchment areas and expand its specialist schools programme so that every secondary school has a specialism. It should abolish the remaining grammar schools (which have disgracefully been allowed to expand under this government), and drop city academies and beacon schools, which were just invented as rebranding exercises for clapped-out inner-city schools. It should also phase out "faith schools" whose alleged success is based on their ability to recruit quiet, God-fearing children, with serious-minded, committed parents. Parents will then be offered a range of schools specialising in science, technology, foreign languages, the arts and so on, though they would all offer the same basic curriculum accounting for 95 per cent of their activity. This would give parents a sensible reason for exercising choice - which at present amounts to nothing more than a search for the "best" school, which, by definition, not everyone can attend. If any school then has more applicants than places, it should settle the matter by drawing lots, as proposed by Philip Collins on page 27.

Together, specialist schools and selection by lottery should get nearer than anything we have at present to creating schools with a good social mix. That should attract more parents from the fee-charging sector - which could also be weakened by withdrawing the subsidies it enjoys from charitable status. Overall, the policy would be fair, efficient and easy to understand. In those respects, it would be different from any other education policy recently put forward by any party.