Wednesday's Times carried the story that demand for places at independent schools is at its highest in five years, despite above inflation rises in fees and the worsening economic situation. Yesterday's Times reported that thousands of children are set to miss out on their first choice state primary school this year – in some places as many as a quarter of students are to be disappointed. These two pieces of news are not unrelated.
Parents care about where their child goes to school, and want the best for them. In increasing numbers, they are realizing that the state system cannot deliver this and are turning to the private sector instead. Of course, that's fine for families who can afford to pay an average £11,000 a year in fees, but it does leave the less advantaged in a bit of a pickle. They probably cant afford to move into the catchment area of a good state school or pay to go private. They will be stuck with the school they are allocated to by their local authority, regardless of how bad it is.
It doesn't have to be like this. First of all, there are things you can do to improve standards in existing schools. Give them the freedom from regulation and targets that they need to innovate and tailor teaching to the pupils in front of them. Put headteachers back in charge of discipline and expulsions and let them deal with staff pay, using incentives if they want to. Then make them accountable to parents, not bureaucrats.
And that means giving parents a real and effective choice over where to send their children. As in Sweden, the independent sector needs to be encouraged to open more schools, which would be eligible for state-funding on a per-capita basis. As in Denmark, groups of parents should be able to group together, demand their share of state funding, and set up their own schools. The real key here is to create many more good school places, so that the competitive pressures of parent choice can truly be effective.