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CHRIS PHILP: Every child should have the same opportunity

PUBLISHED: 15:35 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 07 September 2010

Every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Their background shouldn t matter, or whether their parents are rich or poor. It shouldn t matter where they live. But in Britain today, the sad fact is that it does. I believe that this i

Every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Their background shouldn't matter, or whether their parents are rich or poor. It shouldn't matter where they live. But in Britain today, the sad fact is that it does. I believe that this is profoundly wrong.

At last week's council meeting, we talked about exam results. Camden's schools are doing a decent job compared to other state schools, especially bearing in mind the poverty in parts of the borough. The results showed that 51 per cent got As or Bs at A Level, compared to a national average of 49 per cent. Camden is also just above the national average on the main GCSE measure.

But there was an elephant in the room we didn't discuss: private schools are vastly outperforming the state sector. Even though the funding gap has closed dramatically (which is good), the performance gap is still huge: 40 per cent of private school pupils get 3As at A Level, compared to eight per cent in the state sector. That's why a mother in Swiss Cottage I recently spoke to said that she was going private even though she would have preferred to use the state system. When I heard that only 79 pupils on free school meals got 3 As at A level in the whole UK last year, my heart sank. More pupils than that got 3As at one private school alone in the same year.

I passionately want to reform and improve the state system for the sake of children whose potential is not being realised through no fault of their own. I'm a product of the state system myself, and my mum and cousins all taught or teach in the state sector.

Some will say that this is simply a question of money. I welcome the increase in education funding over the last few years. But at the same time that the Government has rightly increased funding, we have slipped down the international league tables. The UK has dropped precipitously - from 8th to 24th in maths, below the international average, and we now are behind Estonia in reading. In Science, we have dropped from 4th place to 14th.

We now spend more than the OECD average on education. Spending per state pupil is now approaching that of many private schools. Why, after huge amounts of extra money, is the state system still not working as it should? The challenge is no longer money; the challenge is reform.

Last week, Education Secretary Ed Balls visited Camden. The system he presides over tries to run everything from the centre. Teachers cite bureaucracy, paperwork and diktats as the main reason for leaving the profession (poor discipline is next, and salaries third). It is impossible for schools to innovate or change to suit local conditions or meet parent demand. Consequently, there is limited real parent choice. It is also fiendishly difficult to set up a new school, with endless hurdles to jump.

The inflexible bureaucracy is one reason we have a shortage of primary places in the north of Camden. Ironically, Mr Balls visited the emergency overflow centre in my ward which Camden had to set up to put a sticking plaster on this problem. If parents, teachers or charities had the freedom to set up a new school, receiving per-capita state funding, then the problem would likely have been fixed before an emergency solution was needed.

This is the kind of reform we need. The barriers to setting up new schools must be torn down. Schools must have real freedom to run their own affairs, free of Ed Balls's emasculating grip. This will result in a real diversity of schools.

There will be competition for pupils, not competition to see who can tick Government boxes. Parents in turn will have real choice. The vast amount of money soaked up by Mr Balls's monolithic bureaucracy can instead be channelled to classrooms - schools should spend it as they see fit, not how he tells them to. Staff hiring and salaries, budgets, admissions and discipline should be run by schools, not by him.

A dynamic, better state system will develop, benefitting all. In Sweden and in the US, they have Charter Schools, like the kind I'm describing. Where they are set up, they are often designed to cater for pupils from disadvantaged areas. And children there start doing better remarkably quickly.

Here in Camden we've tried to make a start by setting up an Academy at Swiss Cottage, to provide better opportunities. But real national reform is needed to create the genuine equality of opportunity that has eluded us for so long.

It's not just our children's future that's at stake. It's our country's too.

q Chris Philp is a Camden councillor and the

Conservative candidate for

Hampsetad & Kilburn.

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