I’ve been watching the debate about schooling/grammar schools/academies/choice with interest over the last week or so.Leaving aside the politics of it all, i think there are a few questions that need to be answered on all sides:
- If you believe in selective education, do you really believe in choice? I don’t think so. You may believe in ‘diversity of supply’, but that’s not the same as options for parents, or indeed competition between providers. As the Fraser Nelson points out in the Spectator, ‘what would Milton Friedman make of a system where schools choose pupils, rather than the other way around?’.
- If you believe in choice, then what incentives are there for successful schools to expand? This is on of the key ideas behind choice – mimicking the market so that successful providers expand – but why would a school necessarily want to get any bigger? As Anatole Koletsky argues in The Times, ‘popular schools must not just be permitted to expand, but strongly encouraged to do so. In come cases, philanthropic or religious motivations could offer sufficient incentive, but …choice-led school expansion cannot rely on faith and charity alone.’
- If you believe in choice then does that mean the state has no role in deciding who providers are? I don’t think so. As with above, ‘diversity’ is a means, not an end. So more diversity doesn’t necessarily mean better provision. Fraser Nelson’s Spectator article suggests that ‘civil society’ should decide who runs schools, but given recent controversies around social segregation in schooling, is this acceptable? Should anyone be able to run a school? Education is a public good, which involves more than just GCSE results – surely choice policies have to reconcile themselves with this.
- If you don’t believe in choice, fine, but what kind of admissions do you support? A key critique of choice policies is that they favour the middle classes. But the LSE – among others – has shown how, in a system based on catchment areas, family income plays a significant role in determining access to the best state schools through house prices. If you can afford it, you move to where the good schools are. Which, in turn, pushes up house prices in those areas further. So opponents of choice need an alternative to the status quo to make criticism of choice credible. The IPPR, for example, suggests school banding.
I’m sure there are more issues that i haven’t mentioned here. But the point is that the debate about how to run the school system is filled with lazy language and assumptions. The result is that people find themselves either in favour or against ‘diversity’, or ‘choice’, or ‘decentralisation’ without being clear about exactly what that means. None of which is very helpful.