Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Labour’s new gimmick: an education lottery that has nothing to do with one’s postcode

This lunchtime BBC London reported the latest idiotic wheeze planned for education. Apparently, the government is to do away with the “postcode lottery” (a misnomer for what is in fact a postcode auction) by replacing it with a real lottery!

Schools will be encouraged to offer places not based on local catchment areas but on a simply lottery basis: parents put down the name of their children and names are randomly selected.

There is no doubt that the current system is unfair. A friend of mine in Muswell Hill once pointed to a street where the houses on one side of the road were worth £100,000 more than those on the other side, because one side of the road was in the catchment area for a highly rated state school. This new system would, by comparison, be more equitable because access to good state schools would not be decided by wealth, with only the richest parents able to move into the catchment areas of the best schools. Instead, every child would have an equal chance of “winning” a place in the school of their choice.

This raises its own problems, of course. Children would not now be guaranteed a place in their local school but may have to travel for long periods each way for an education. This would be costly – a cost that would probably fall on the local authority and undoubtedly in the end on the taxpayer – and would expose children to stress and risk.

More to the point, however, it represents a complete U-turn by the government that only two years ago promised parental choice. While parents may now have the choice whether to participate in a particular school’s lottery or not, clearly the ultimate decision is now to be taken not by parents, teachers or administrators, but by chance. There seems something strangely fatalistic in a government admitting that a random process is better than a rational decision taken in the interests of a specific child (though I am confident that a random process could be no worse than a decision made about an unknown child by a faceless bureaucracy).

The real problem, though, is that it fails to get to the heart of the education problem – a problem that leaves a quarter of school leavers functionally illiterate, innumerate and without any decent qualifications. The reforms needed to improve educational standards and so enhance both children’s opportunities and our economy’s future are those that would raise standards across the board and tailor education to the pupil. In practice the only way to improve standards is by rewarding success and eliminating failure in education, which can only be achieved by injecting competition into the system. If schooling is to meet the specific needs of individual children it must enable parents to exercise real choice about both the school to which their child goes and the content and balance of the curriculum. In addition, both goals would be served if schools were free to innovate and so explore new methods of teaching.

This will never come about as long as education is provided by a state monopoly and children are allocated schools irrespective of their or their parents’ needs or desires. The solution is to establish a voucher system whereby parents can exercise choice about (for example) whether their child should attend the local school or a particularly good school far away, and whether they should attend one that specialises in science, the arts or language. As the cash would follow the pupil, good schools would expand and bad ones wither; eventually successful providers would take over failing establishments to improve and rejuvenate them – just as the failing Skoda car company was bought out and saved by Volkswagen and is now a successful provider of cars far superior to anything that Czechoslovakia’s state monopoly provider could produce.

A voucher scheme would represent a real revolution in provision that would enable all parents to access good schools and provide the best for their children. By comparison, this new government gimmick is a disgraceful effort to replace an unfair system with a system where nobody bears responsibility. It is the sign of a government devoid of ideas.


Bishop Hill said...

Maybe you should be in UKIP. They seem to be developing libertarian tendencies and are advocating education vouchers already. Unlike the LibDems.

Kit said...

What is a "good school"? The implied meaning is a school with high academic achievement. Is this achieved by good teaching or starting with bright pupils. I think it is predominantly the latter. Mixing school intake will have no, or even a negative, effect.
We need to have selection on ability just as in the private sector. (Private schools for "nice but dim" kids stress sporting and character building above academic results. These are not considered bad schools.)