Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Choice in Education

The appointment of Andrew Adonis has raised a few eye-brows after Blair said he was prepared to "listen" after the election. Partly because he began his political career, not in the Labour Party, but in the SDP/Liberal thingy in the 1980s; partly because in order to lever him into the Department of Education, Blair had to give him one of those microwave peerages; and partly, to put it bluntly, because he's a Thatcherite in drag.

Although not as important as detention without trial and the various other restriction on liberty introduced by this government, Blair's re-starting of the Thatcherite war on the teaching profession was one of the reasons why I felt unable to vote Labour this time. Just when the Thatcherite/Maoist rampage through our educational system seemed to be petering out under Major, Blair on being elected in 1997 started it up again - signaling his intention to do so by re-appointing the appropriately named Chris Woodhead as Chief Inquisitor of teachers (or whatever his job description said).

Since then, my English comrades (thankfully, up here us "unreconstructed wankers" - Blair said it, not me - only get watered-down versions of all the garbage they have to put up with) have been inflicted with all sorts of soul-destroying targets, and the bureaucracy that goes with it; changes in the examination system; changes in the structure of the schooling system itself - along with a hefty dose of sneering contempt from oleaginous Blairite ministers who spout crap about "bolshie teachers' unions" (I wish), and "trendy teachers" (if that isn't an oxymoron, I don't know what it), and so on.

Then, to add insult to injury, the slight change of tack - after the astonishing discovery that people were becoming disinclined to do this job - came in the form of that pathetic advert, where various celebs appear on a pukey advert under the stirring slogan "everyone remembers a good teacher" - like that's going to make up for all the sh1t we've had poured over us all these years!

Now, with the appointment of Adonis, the English system is about to experience the extension of choice in the system, with more "specialist" schools and more parent power.

Hmmm, Adonis's academic CV would suggest he isnae daft - but I think one crucial point has escaped him and others who advocate "choice for all" in education: it doesn't exist and can't exist.

So much of the guff one hears about education stems from the fact that people have a strange reluctance to accept that it is compulsory. What I mean really is that alot of people today - no doubt having had their minds befuddled with the lazy but insistent cry of "consumer sovereignty" one hears everywhere - don't seem to want to accept the implications of this, because to modern ears it sounds uncomfortably illiberal.

Compulsory education is illiberal, if one uses the term in its traditional sense. It goes beyond the notion that 5-16 year-olds don't know their own good; implicit in the legal structure of compulsory education is the notion that parents don't know their children's own good, should they think that education is something they can opt out of.

Sometimes I think this fact is just too much for people and it seems that there's an incredible amount of energy spent on maintaining the illusion that this state of affairs is somehow consistent with notions of consumer choice, hence the modern trend to the marketisation of the system we all know and hate.

Another fact - this time about free-markets - has to be taken on board; they produce waste because implicit in the concept of choice is the possibility that some items will be left un-chosen because no one wants them. Now, if this is just, say, Marks and Sparks Y-fronts, this doesn't matter much - they can put them in a bargain bin to get rid of them.

But for education, this is a different matter: the best "products" in the educational market are the schools that perform the best academically and in the education market, these are the one's that everyone will want; the poorest "products" are the schools like the one's I end up teaching in all the time.

If it were a really free-market in education, the limited stocks of places at the best schools would be rationed out by the price-mechanism. Fortunately, we don't have this a present so on what basis will they be distributed? At present, there's a mixture of mechanisms but the most significant is the possession of a desirable postcode - and these, as anyone who's experienced the housing market in the last few years will testify, don't come cheap.

What I'm suggesting in other words is that, in this context, it's the schools that have the choice, not the parents. How that's supposed to help inequality in education (and that is the problem - this is where we fall down compared to the rest of the OECD, not at the university end) is beyond me because no-one with even a passing acquaintance with the education system thinks that schools - working in an environment where the crude obsession with league tables dominates - will use their choice to select those with behavioural and learning difficulties.

And it'll be enormously difficult to challenge because anyone doing so will immediately be accused of being anti-choice, which everyone knows is a Good Thing In And Of Itself.

It's not good - and I really do worry about my English friends because y'all seem to have got yourselves into a fairly extreme state of neurosis about what schools to send your little treasures to already - god knows what effect the next stage of the Thatcher revolution is going to have.

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