Friday, 18 May 2007

Set parents free to improve the education of their children

Three days at home looking after a convalescing wife has dulled the senses, so my blogging has lapsed.

However, I know how much my regular reader needs their dose of Polemic. So here’s another spanner to throw into the works.

A couple of weeks ago the Economist published a useful round-up of recent studies into school choice. “Choice” is fast becoming a dirty word in the UK, tainted with the vile odour of Tony Blair. That is a shame, and also a misunderstanding. The so-called “Choice Agenda” pursued by the current government is a classic New Labour fudge: like the choices offered by Henry Ford, the citizen can send their child to any school they like, or have their maladies treated at any hospital, as long as it is state-run. They cannot take their hard-paid-for entitlement to free education or healthcare and utilise it in a non-state school or hospital, even if that establishment offers better, swifter, cheaper education or care.

The Liberal Democrats have made some progress, but they are still struggling: our (still extant) manifesto offers “diagnosis by the quickest practical route, public or private”, but fails to extend the same offer to treatment. This is not only a shame but also illogical: if there is value in allowing GPs to send patients to any provider of diagnostics, why is there not the same value in sending patients to any provider of treatment? The answer is, of course, that the benefits are the same, and the sooner we allow patients to seek treatment from the provider that best suits their needs – as determined by them – the better our national healthcare will be.

As I have noted previously, in that haven of Social Democracy that is Sweden, parents are already freer than almost anywhere else in the world to use their tax-funded education vouchers to educate their children anywhere they choose. Sweden has a functional literacy rate of 100 per cent, which puts our education establishment to shame, as a quarter of UK school leavers cannot read and write.
The reason that the Economist article is of such interest, however, is that it establishes what campaigners for school choice have been arguing since 1955: that choice benefits not only those who exercise their right to choose, but also those who do not, and who remain in the state sector. Those who oppose freedom argue that they would be left behind, stuck in state schools as the clever and the driven elbow their way into the best schools. Why those who are clever and driven should be condemned to uniform mediocrity I have never understood, but what matters is that the evidence suggests that these fears are unfounded.

Quoth the Economist: “Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Harvard University… has shown that when American public schools must compete for their students with schools that accept vouchers, their performance improves. Swedish researchers say the same.” So school choice, it seems, benefits all school pupils; even those whose parents do not, themselves, exercise it. As the Economist concludes, “It seems that those who work in state schools are just like everybody else: they do better when confronted by a bit of competition.”


Kit said...

In my humble opinion, tax credits are a better solution. From the US Mackinac Center:

As they say money talks.

Joe Otten said...

I'm very sympathetic to this idea - particular if combined with scrapping the micromanagement of schools coming from the government.

The problem here is political. Labour are not interested, and the Tories know they will not be trusted with any kind of radical public service reform. People will think - with good cause - that they are wreckers.

But this just makes it an even better policy for us. Clear free water.