Parents have some choice of which school to send their kids to. Not a great amount because, surprise, surprise, the best schools are already full up. But since the eighties they can choose a school and, where there is space, their kids can go there.
For some on the left this is a great injustice. Middle class parents should be forced to send their children to really bad schools, because those schools would be better off with the children of aspirational parents conscripted into them. According to the theory, middle class students are a joy to teach and they raise morale and standards by their mere presence. I suppose by a similar argument hospital wards would be more effective places if we made healthy people stay in them. Maybe prisons would be happier places if we locked up more innocent people?
Of course, the reason that this is nonsense is that while the culture of a school is influenced by parental background, it is not the whole story. Middle class children who are surrounded by the underclass tend to either become either very quiet, desperately trying to hide from their peers, or they “go native” and behave as badly as anyone else. Schools are not changed much by fluctuations in their intake. You can throw as many sheep to the wolves as you like, the wolves will still act like wolves.
However, these days the pendulum has swung the other way. The fashionable idea, and, if the polls are to be believed, the policy of the next government, is that of increasing choice.
There are many variations on this policy. Some talk of “vouchers” as though giving a piece of paper to parents makes their choice more real. Others talk as if no choice currently exists and we were still in the 1970s. Many talk as if the problems of the system will soon be solved by the magic of choice and competition. Yes, it’s the 1980s again and this time reality is not going to stand in the way of this policy.
There are red-in-tooth-and-claw versions of this policy in which vouchers can be used to pay part of the fees at private schools, effectively redistributing resources from the majority to the most privileged minority. There are versions of the policy in which selection is brought back, making parental choice secondary to the choice of the schools. But the usual version of the policy, and the one the Tories are now proposing, is to have things basically the same as they are now but hope that by waving one’s arms wildly one can conjure up new schools from nowhere and, even more implausibly, stop anything too bad happening to the students still at the old schools.
Now there are quite a lot of people out there willing to run schools. Some are mad, but probably no madder than a lot of the people already running education. The problem is that we have already had several years of letting private groups run schools as part of the academy program. It has revealed that a) some of these people can make an excellent contribution to the education system and b) some of them can’t and simply piss public money up the wall. The fantasy ignores this and dreams that we can simply make it easier and easier for people to set up schools without getting worse and worse people involved in doing so. In some versions of the story schools will appear anywhere, in old office blocks or any convenient building. No problem. Some people believe that setting up and running a school is no more difficult than, say, running a car boot sale and once you get fifteen kids and a teacher you have a school.
Of course, the reality is something different. According to studies cited in Johnes (1993) primary schools need 70 or 80 students and secondary schools well over 1000 to be efficient. Lots of smaller schools are likely to waste a lot of money even if they are well run. If they are run by idiots (or should I say greater idiots than currently) we can expect even more money to be wasted. Either the private organisations involved are going to be given enough money to waste or they will think twice about risking their own money setting up a school. This is without considering the costs incurred in schools which are suddenly half-empty due to an exodus of students.
Of course, that’s half of the appeal of the policy. In the fantasy bad schools will lose pupils and go out of business, good schools will grow and new schools will meet any surplus demand. Unfortunately supply and demand don’t work quite so conveniently in education. There are considerable rigidities involved. People don’t want to change schools as often as they change supermarkets. Good schools don’t actually want to grow indefinitely. Why should they? If you have a successful school with 1000 students in it, why would you want to try and cope with any more students? It is possible that letting private companies run schools for a profit would create some incentive for this, but the Tories have said they won’t do this. More importantly, bad schools cannot be easily closed. There are two problems with closing schools, firstly you have to find somewhere for existing students to go, secondly you have to convince parents that they want their children to go somewhere else. The first can be an extremely difficult endeavour in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy world where you can apparently set up a school in your garden shed). The second is a policitician’s nightmare: hundreds of pissed off parents who are about to be seriously inconvenienced by relocating their children. Local authorities struggle with this in the situation where they have monopoly powers. How private organisations would deal with this is beyond me.
Of course, none of this is new. This is the reason why this policy was never followed through even during the free market enthusiasm of the eighties. However since then the Tories have a new magic word: “Sweden”. Sweden has opened up its school system to greater competition and it seems to have worked okay. To hear Tories talk about it you’d think it was some kind of utopia (as opposed to successful by low British standards but nothing to make Finland feel insecure about). The assumption is that we are just like Sweden: A monolithic, state-controlled, secular system with a pool of highly qualified professional teachers, just waiting to be energised by allowing greater diversity, such as private schools and faith schools, into the system, with competent local authorities who can be trusted to responsibly regulate the system.
So really, the only question to be asked is: how long is it going to take them to notice?
Johnes, Geraint. The Economics of Education. Macmillan Press, 1993