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.

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On your point about what parents want.

I honestly believe that what most parents want is to know that their local school is doing a good job.

Implicit in that for me is that it is providing opportunities in a range of subjects.

Personally I don’t see any advantage in choosing, at age 11, between schools which specialise in, say, enterprise, art or languages. I want to know that my children will be given an opportunity to develop skills in all these areas. I would prefer them to get ‘reasonably good’ teaching in all of them rather than ‘exceptional’ teaching in any one of them.

At least in Abingdon the three secondary schools and the FE college work collaboratively post 16 to widen the choice for students rather than competitively which would decrease choice.

And choice is only of use if you live somewhere that gives you access to it.

I note that the head of St Birinus Boys School in Didcot is quoted in the local paper saying that Didcot doesn’t need a mixed secondary school because parents who want a mixed secondary school have the choice of sending their children to schools in Abingdon, Didcot and Wantage.

Well yes, in theory they do, assuming they are happy for their children to get up an hour earlier each morning and can afford to pay the tarvel costs. In reality it is only a choice if your circumstances are right.

by Liberal Neil on November 24, 2006 at 11:13 am. Reply #

On your point about Milburn’s analysis being right.

Milburn’s analysis is flawed.

He rightly states that most of the schools with the poorest results serve poorest areas.

Yet he ignores the fairly obvious and widely researched causal link here.

Does he honestly believe that it is just some bizarre coincidence that has resulted in poor headteachers, teachers and buildings in the poorest areas?

Doies he really not see that there are a whole host of reasons why schools in poorer areas tend, on average, to have poorer results?

Now it may be that one way to change the situation is to place a greater cash premium on pupils from such areas. Or to take a similar approach to children with special needs.

Even if the pupils don’t then move school, it could enhance the budgets of the schools serving the further.

But the idea that the education of those children will be enhanced simply by moving their schooling is nonsense.

To take Oxford as an example. You could close Peers and share out the pupils between Cherwell, Cheney, Thame and Matthew Arnold. The immediate result would be that Oxford would no longer have a school that, on Milburn’s logic, is ‘weak’.

But would this immediately improve the grades of the individual pupils that have been moved? Or would the varage results at the four schools they are now attending just drop a bit and the individual pupils concenred end up getting broadly similar results anyway?

What we really need to tackle are the underlying reasons why pupils in the current Peers catchement arae have and will consistently do less well than their peers from better off areas.

If it was just about competition between schools why aren’t all the parents in the Peers area already choosing to send their children elsewhere as the current rules allow?

by Liberal Neil on November 24, 2006 at 11:25 am. Reply #

Perhaps we should be supporting school vouchers, imposing no conditions other than minimum educational standards and the teaching of core subjects upon the schools and making it easy for people to set up their own schools.

Get a range of providers, a range of ethoses, let parents and children choose the best school for the child.

The government’s attempt at choice consists of forcing schools to specialise in subjects, but that isn’t always whats wanted. We need to free schools from central control, by Whitehall or the Town Hall.

There are so many factors which determine choice of school, specialist subjects may be one, but ethos, location, quality of buildings, friends, particular teachers and many more factors influence choice, the only way to give even a small number of these to people is to open up the education market fully.

by Tristan on November 24, 2006 at 1:58 pm. Reply #

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