Let’s campaign for choice

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2006

Alan Milburn has always impressed me, not so much for his narcissist’s demeanour, but because he has never been afraid to state his argument even when he knows it’s the very opposite of what his party wants to hear.

He’s at it again in today’s Grauniad, pointing out the appalling educational inequalities in this country which are all too often tolerated in the name of educational equality:

At present, any parent can state which school they would prefer their child to attend. To break the cycle of educational disadvantage we need to give parents in the most disadvantaged areas more than preference. They should have choice. Many better-off parents already exercise such choice through indirect market mechanisms – most notably the buying of homes near good schools. Poor parents need a more direct mechanism. Countries as diverse as Denmark, Sweden and the USA have all in recent years pioneered different forms of parental choice. The evidence suggests both that choice programmes helped raise standards across all schools and that the most disadvantaged pupils benefited most. …

It is simply not right – and we should no longer tolerate the fact – that too many working class children are still let down by the schools system. Correcting that injustice means shifting the balance of power to put more choice in the hands of parents who the system currently disempowers. Those parents and their children need a direct route of the educational ghetto.

He is right: both in the problems he cites, and that a market mechanism will be the best way to empower those who are currently disempowered. (Though I’m unpersuaded by the specific measure he recommends: an educational credit available only to those in ‘failing schools’. Sounds like a nut to crack a sledgehammer.)

If one definition of liberalism is ‘equality of opportunity’ – a level playing field in which all are free to make of their lives what they will – then ensuring access for all to the best possible schooling isn’t merely an aspiration: it’s a fundamental pre-requisite.

Giving parents and their kids meaningful choice between schools with different specialisms is crucial to achieving that. What we desperately, urgently need to get beyond is the pat soundbite that “All parents want is a good local school.”

Though that may well be true, at least in part, it’s an argument that ignores how we achieve such a goal. Policies pursued by successive governments to date have signally failed.

And it is, in any case, misleading. Because while I have no doubt that parents would like to know there is one good local school, they would be still more delighted to have the choice between two or more good local schools.

Good public services depend on three factors:

  • Decent funding;
  • Local autonomy;
  • Competition between providers.

Lib Dems have long campaigned for the first two. We need now to have the guts to address the third, to campaign for choice.