Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Educashun: I want some answers, dammit!

'Sok, it's not another rant about how crap my job is; my New Year's resolution, which I'll start early, is to not do that anymore. Rather I'm interested in the right-wing solutions to our present educational malaise that are advocated by a surprisingly high number of bloggers and commentators and what reasons they have for believing they would be a success.

The most extreme option would be to privatise the lot, as you'll see advocated periodically on this site. I've asked for a real world example of a country that has provided a universal education system purely on private enterprise but it's only a rhetorical question; everyone knows there isn't one. So we have to imagine what this would be like and in doing so, ask the following questions. Is there any reason to assume a completely private education system would not look like the health care market in the United States - a nation divided between those who can't afford health or dental insurance and those who can afford cosmetic surgery - for their pets? And if so, is this considered desirable, or even tolerable? And if not, why not?

The more moderate approach is to offer more consumer choice, through a range of different mechanisms - vouchers being a favoured option here. I have to ask first of all, where's the choice? Assuming everyone will get the same number of vouchers and that practically everyone will want to get their children into the best performing school in any given area, the best schools will have excess demand for places. They'll need to be rationed somehow. The market does this via the price mechanism - would this be done with school places via some form of top-up? How does this extend choice to the poorest? They'll be in the same position as before. Or will they use some other criteria, such as religion, as they do at the moment? They could use the criterion of ability, something to which I'll return but I think the point should be made that choice already exists in the system, and I think it's results have been rather mixed, to say the least.

For example, as I understand it, in Scotland we have a more flexible 'placings request' system than in England. Here requests to place one's child in a school other than the one in your catchment area are normally granted. People do vote with their feet and schools do decline as a result. Now in the free-market model, the 'successful' school absorbs the intake of the 'failing' school and hey presto! - everyone gets to soak in the waterfall of sound management that brought success in the first place.

Let me counter this with what I call the 'reality model', based on actual experience: shite school closes and merges with marginally less shite school, only to discover that those running the slightly less shite school don't really know what they're doing and that this produces one monumental pile-of-shite school, it's complete shiteyness demonstrated with plummeting results, deteriorating discipline, increased staff absence and turnover, and regular visits from the local constabulary. Been there - seen that. Tell me why this wouldn't happen come the choice-revolution, only on a much larger scale?

Has choice been good for London? There's so much more of it down there: a bewildering choice between co-ed comprehensives, 'city academies', Catholic schools, Anglican schools, rather less Muslim and Jewish schools - but there's room for a Seventh Day Adventist school - and then there's the private sector, which has, I understand, a take up of about 20% - about three times the level of Scotland. Is London's education system better than Scotland's? I think not: ours may be pants but yours/theirs is big nylon pants as far as I can see.

Then there's the possibility of rationing places according to ability - which would be the grammar school option. Since we've had them in the past, still have them in some parts of the country, and is the norm (so I'm lead to believe anyway) in Northern Ireland, this is the least radical option. It's also the fairest, since it's the only one of the three that, obstensibly at least, does not have wealth as the sole determining factor in entrance criteria. I'm much more open-minded on this one for that reason but since presumably entrance would be by competitive exam, is it really fair to determine the child's future on one test, taken at one stage in their development? And with today's wealth, can it seriously be suggested that the wealthy wouldn't have a build-in advantage with access to private tutors and so on?

And I can't help feeling that so many of these sorts of debates are driven by those who automatically assume their child, of course, would pass any 11-plus type exam. But what if they didn't? Then they'd have to concern themselves with what the bottom end of society has to contend with and the cry, "We need four secondary moderns in every town", isn't one you often hear, is it?

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