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Tough test awaits minister

PITY the next education minister. He or she will take over at a time when the sector has never been more vital to the success of our society as a whole, but also a time when money for expansion and badly needed reform will be hard to come by.

And the new minister cannot avoid tackling a much-neglected problem. A new system must be found to replace the present all-but-complete religious control of schools. That means difficult and intense negotiations, and issues of conflicting rights.

In the meantime, early solutions need to be found for problems of conflicting rights that already exist.

The 1998 Education Act requires that schools' admission policies take into account children with disabilities or other special educational needs. But a report in 2007 found that, in one vocational school, 55.84pc of the pupils had special needs while two secondary schools in the same area had only 2.5pc of special needs pupils.

Anecdotal evidence suggests discrimination against Travellers and immigrants, and special treatment on grounds of social class and likely educational attainment. Some discrimination may be benign or at least unwitting. It would be difficult -- almost cruel -- to prevent siblings from attending the same school, supposedly in the interest of fair play.

But a system based on deliberate separation of groups from one another, on grounds of social class or origin, would be intolerable. Clarification of the law and of practice must be a priority for the next minister.