Far too much hedging of bets here (well, it is The Guardian). The sheer corporate grossness of the city academies - the fact that essentially, the state pays a business, occasionally with self-righteous sally army tendencies, to use a school as a mode of advertising - shouldn't obscure a more difficult question. The rhetoric of choice has been attacked as a neoliberal alibi, which it is. But where it works is by hijacking a particular leftish critique of the huge statist bureaucracy etc, proposing 'choice' and 'diversity' as against the sausage factory we all know and love. I spent a depressing half hour arguing with an old school friend recently, who is now 'Director of Learning' in a West London Academy. He'd benefitted, like me, from a 'bog standard' (as New Labour like to put it) comprehensive, a glassy 60s thing designed by one L. Berger, the city architect.
Due to Southampton's dearth of Secondary schools it had a huge cross-section of people: Punjabi kids from St Marys, unterkinder from the local Flower Estate (like myself) and loads of middle-class folk with leftish parents. Meeting, and befriending the latter changed my life (not to put too fine a point on it). And here was one of them, justifying a system that would have ensured that I would never have met him, on the grounds that it would have been good for me. 'You can't have some robotic system where everyone in the country does the same lessons at the same time.' That's the choice: special schools for the edification of the business ego, or a system of educational Fordism.
The tragedy is that the left has no outlet to construct anything different. In the 30s, in the grip of an equally grim antisocial consensus, there were little incursions, social condensers and Peckham Experiments that suggested that there were other choices, alternatives. Now that the 'new ideas' and the fancy architecture are on the other side (no matter how botched the city academies have been in practice, as per the overwhelming evidence), how can we fight back without hearing the cry of 'reactionary!' from those dragging us back to the 19th century?