Choice for the chosen few

John Howson

The Government wants to offer parents more options, but is this the best way to improve school standards?

Personalisation is the new buzzword. The Government's five-year plan enthuses about the idea of a personally tailored education for every individual. Although, even the Government acknowledges that, "choice within a compulsory service - like primary and secondary education - will be different from choice for older learners".

Nevertheless, it is the concept of choice of school for pupils rather than personalised learning for older learners that is heralded as the important idea in current government thinking. This is despite the fact that it is nearly 25 years since the passing of Section 6 of the 1980 Education Act, which gave parents the right to express a preference for a particular school and placed a duty on local authorities to meet that preference whenever possible. Now, the agenda seems to be about choosing from different patterns of education rather than choice within a relatively uniform system. So, a quarter of a century later, should choice still be top of the agenda?

Clearly, we live in a society where choice is a normal part of everyday life for most people. At this time of year, we can choose where to go on holiday, and often when, whether to travel by car, or to fly. Of course, not everyone has all those choices. The less well off you are the fewer choices you have. By contrast, even if you cannot exercise choice, you do still have rights. Every child has the right to a quality education, and achieving this must always be the first priority of any government's education policy. Much of the clamour for the right to choose is the direct result of the failure of the Government to provide quality schooling for all pupils. Often this relates to past failures to provide a quality workforce to deliver that education. A policy of choice in this instance means offering some parents a chance to avoid failure, rather than a choice between successful alternatives. This is especially true in parts of London, where there have been problems over most of the past decade with providing enough teachers for many schools, even in the primary sector.

Providing a quality teaching force for all schools might significantly reduce the unwillingness of many parents to use local schools. This would then allow a proper debate about what sort of choice is appropriate in a successful state-funded school system.

Without overcoming existing problems, which include providing a sufficient number of specialist subject teachers and appropriately trained primary teachers, choice is really a lottery, where some pupils are winners and the rest losers. The main aim of government must always be to ensure a first-class education for all, not excellence for some and mediocrity for the remainder. Only then can it really offer choice for all. With school rolls set to decline over the next decade, and because funding is closely tied to pupil numbers, there is a real risk that the choices made by a few parents will have a disproportionate effect on the education of many other children.

Despite the Government's love affair with the market, there has to be a measure of strategic planning for the schools sector. Without such planning, you can have the absurdity of a single-sex selective school becoming the only specialist school for business and enterprise in a particular community. Indeed, the haphazard growth of the specialist schools market and that planned for city academies makes it difficult to see how the system as currently devised can contribute to the goal of a quality education system for all pupils.

Of course, many parents no doubt believe that they have greater choice when they opt to pay for private schooling; but, as the recent sale by Nord Anglia of its schools in England has shown, even in that market you can find the school controlled by a new owner who is free to change the education philosophy.

Discussions about more choice are a luxury that comes after we have guaranteed all children a quality education. That goal must remain the first call on government funding for education.

Professor John Howson is an authority on the labour market for teachers and an adviser on education to the Liberal Democrats

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