Monday, 14 January 2008

How we can get that “Good local school” everybody wants

I don’t usually do requests, but I received a message from dreamingspire asking me to clarify Andy Mayer’s report of my comment that people may not want choice, but choice is the means to give them what they do want, which is good local services.

My comments came in response to a doctor and Lib Dem councillor who commented firstly that the next nearest schools to her were 11 and 12 miles away respectively, so that her choice was in fact limited; and that most people did not want choice, they just wanted “A good, local school.”

In this latter point she was, at least in part, correct – choice is not an end in itself, but a means. The point of choice (and competition, and markets, and all those other scary things that cause Social Democratic stomachs to knot in fear) is that it is the most effective driver in improving standards.

The reason for this is simple, and one that liberals should consider to be a matter of fact: monopolies do not serve their customer’s interests. By comparison, nothing encourages providers to satisfy their customers more than competition, or “freedom of exit” as one might also put it. It is the fact that I can take my money and spend it elsewhere that makes those firms that I patronise continue to struggle to provide the best goods and services available; while others struggle equally hard to woo me with better offers. So for example, my employer has recently expressed its dissatisfaction with the supplier of sandwiches for lunch meetings by switching to another supplier, which is far easier and more efficacious than trying to make the previous supplier change their methods.

And here is where my frustration with the Defenders of the State(/us quo) begins. For the opposition to choice in public services is in the end a belief that citizens should be obliged to utilise public services that are delivered by pubic servants and managed by the government even if that provision is inferior to alternatives that are on offer. Lest my publically-employed readers and colleagues move to quickly to jump to the defence of the public sector, I should add that nothing in that statements implies that public services do or must deliver poorer outcomes for citizens. What I am saying is that if a patient or parent believes that they can access better healthcare or schooling elsewhere, it is the height of arrogance to deny them their freedom to do so.

This was clearly why Nick Clegg told the Manifesto Conference on Saturday that “every patient should have a guarantee of treatment within a specified waiting time - and to drive the NHS to deliver that, everyone should have the right to receive private treatment, paid for by the NHS, if the waiting time’s not met.” This need not divert a single penny of taxpayers’ money from the NHS, if only it is able to deliver prompt treatment, but if the NHS is unable to deliver on that simple requirement then patients should be free to get their treatment elsewhere, rather than being compelled to wait for months or years (often in acute pain or with consequent deleterious effects to their health and wellbeing) for the NHS to be able to deal with them.

Of course, choice will not be exercised by every citizen, and one of the greatest concerns of those opposed to choice is that it will benefit the articulate and the pushy at the expense of the marginalized. But this is not in fact the case at all, for the choice of some is beneficial to all. If I continually go to the same electricity provider or supermarket without ever exercising choice, I still benefit from the freedom of others to choose, which drives all providers to aim to deliver the best. This is so common in private markets as to go largely unremarked. Yet evidence from districts where parents have been given school choice suggests that the same applies to public services, too: the standards of public schools did not fall when the ambitious parents exercises choice and moved their children to private schools; rather, the public schools responded by “upping their game”, improving their own teaching in an attempt to limit the exit of their citizen/customers.

Hence my interjection at the Manifesto Conference: choice raises standards across the board, not just for those exercising their freedom.

But what of our doctor and councilor who lives so far from other schools that she fears that choice in her village is meaningless? Real choice in fact still exists, because she can exit. The example of the Elmgreen School is instructive: dissatisfied parents, rather than tolerating inferior education for their children, exercised their freedom to exit the public system by taking their public money and financing an entirely new school. In their case, it was a novel idea that required the local authority’s permission, but in theory any group of parents could do just that, using their public money to home-educate, or pooling their resources to set up a local school or merely hire teachers to visit them at key times to teach their children.

Choice is too often seen as a Trojan Horse for privatization, but that is a lie spread by those for whom individual as opposed to collective solutions are anathema. Real choice may very well be private, but it just as equally may be public, voluntary, charity, religious, co-operative, self-help or any of a host of other possibilities. As Clegg went on to say, “the state must oversee core standards and entitlements. But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off”

And as for the much-stated assertation that voters do not actually want or care about choice, I will conclude as I did at the conference by reminding readers of what David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, once commented: people may say that they do not care about more choice, but just try taking away the choice that they have already been given!


Tristan said...

A good summary.
The old 'people don't want a choice' mantra is tired and frankly misses the point.

At the risk of extending the debate further - the privatisation issue is something liberals need to address. Privatisation should be seen as a good thing. What is bad is the way it is usually a way for political friends and rent seekers to gain power and for the government to gain some revenue and (more) power over the private sector.

mhuntbach said...

This whole "good school"/"bad school" debate is based around the idea that the "goodness" and "badness" of schools is something to do with the school buildings or teachers or something else intrinsic to the schools themselves.

Mostly it isn't - the dominating factor in whether a school is "good" or "bad" is the pupils. If the pupils come mainly from educated professional parents, it'll be a good school almost regardless of any other factors. If the pupils come from poor uneducated backgrounds, it'll be a bad school almost regardless of anything else.

Growing social division seems to have made this problem worse - the once reasonably common poor working class family who nevertheless avidly read books and had a reasonable intellectual grasp of the world around them seems to have vanished.

So for all this fine talk of parents actively choosing schools, and this driving standards up, what most parents who care really are up to is trying to make sure their kids aren't educated alongside the kids of the parents who don't care or can't cope.

The problem is however you divide things up, the parents who don't care or can't cope and their kids will still be there. This is, to use that horribly over-used phrase, the "elephant in the room". And I've just read dozens of LibDem blogs on this subject, and none of them dare discuss this elephant, so, to be frank, all these fine ideas about "choice" are pretty worthless when it comes to really dealing with the problem of school "quality".

Norfolk Blogger said...

Choice has led to thousands of parents driving their children across boroughs and countys every day. And let's be clear about which parents get this choice, they are the middle classes.

Matthew makes the point well about the growing social division this is causing. We have an education apartheid, with kids from middle class background abandoning schools because they have the "bad kids who don't pass exams", which is what parents base their choices on, often ignoring the Ofsted reports on the schools which show excellent teaching standards.

Choice is only "choice" if you have the choice. I have the "choice" to buy a Rolls Royce, but I cannot afford it. We need to make sure choice is a proper one, for everyone, and not the elitist choice we ahve at the moment.

Tom Papworth said...

Nich (Norfolk),

I agree with your second point, but education vouchers would provide that choice for everyone. The Royles Royce isn't the point: the choice most people have is between a Volvo and a Peugeot and a Renault etc. This competition drives up quality. Give every parent a voucher for (say) £5,000 and let them shop around, and all schools will improve.

And that addresses your first point. As I said in the main article, it doesn't matter if one does not exercise choice oneself, as the fact that others have choice drives up standards for all - as has been proven in places where school choice exists, such as Sweden and parts of America and Canada.

Tristan said...

I see mhuntbach is back on his refuted position...

As is repeatedly shown, choice improves all schools, even if not everyone exercises that choice.

Also, the status quo (which as far as I can tell mhuntbach supports) denies opportunity to those who wish to have it. That is deeply wrong.

We cannot force people to seek an education, all we can do is offer opportunity.

As for Nich's points: He reiterates the false freedom idea - you cannot be free to fly - its not possible. Of course actions are restrained by circumstance, what we can do is make sure the state does not hinder actions.

In the current system a few get to choose Rolls-Royces, a few more get Volvos or Fords, the rest however are stuck with Ladas because the state seeks to plan the system.

In a choice based system, there's still be a few who could choose Rolls-Royces, but the majority would be able to choose Volvos or Fords and Lada would go out of business.

mhuntbach said...

I'm not against choice in education provision, I'm just pointing out it isn't the panacea for education problems which some hold it to be.

I'm simply talking about what anyone who's involved in the real school issue knows to be the truth.

Tristan - do you deny the point I'm making - that the dominant feature in what makes a school "good" is the pupils in it?

Anonymous said...

The 'pupils' are one feature of a good school. Other features could be: a management team whose main aim is to please parents, rather than to pacify other (public sector) bureaucrats. Or teachers who are free to teach in the light of their professional knowledge and experience, rather than according to the latest fashion in state manufactured, jargon-riddled, utopian drivel.

It's quite telling that those keenest to use the power of the state to prevent parents choosing the education best suited to their children do so on the basis that some parents are too thick/untrustworthy/incompetent to be allowed to do so.