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When I was young and still wondering whether it was better to be called black or brown, I lived on a council estate in a stable community and went to the local junior school.


By the age of ten I’d worked out the difference between a grammar school and a comprehensive school. The comprehensive was within walking distance and all your friends would go there. The grammar was two buses away, way outside my ‘travel to school’ area, and was full of middle class kids being groomed to go to university.


My parents knew the difference too. The grammar school (single sex) was the place where I’d avoid teenage pregnancy, do well in my exams, go on to university and end up in a white collar job. The comprehensive school was where I’d save on bus fares, be able to come home for lunch and have siblings and friends.


Choice is a wonderful word. It speaks of empowerment and a kind of social wealth: the power to take the best and reject the rest.


In this free market for education, everyone who can, does; and everyone who does, does well or is helped to do better. There’s no need to be at the front of the queue because there is enough for everyone, rich and poor.


Few who know anything about public services will recognise the picture of abundance implied by the reforms.


Great schools everywhere, for everyone? Good quality teaching as a matter of course? Parents fully involved? Is that really what you get when you invite a range of providers to develop services for the public rather than leaving it to the public sector?


For the reforms to work, attention must be paid to the detail of how people engage with the structures and what goes on within them. And much of that will depend on where people come from and how they understand themselves and the world they live in.


The rest will be up to schools, their backers and parents. Some of the resulting variety will be a good thing, some will be overambitious, some will be marketing over substance. But for parents who don’t have the knowledge or confidence to navigate the system the reforms may well be confusing and disorientating. If those in the know get the best out of the system while others struggle to take advantage of its benefits, we could all be forgiven for asking, what’s new?


Susan Downer, assistant editor


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