It was a cold bright day in September and the clocks were striking 9. Greg Smith, his chin buried in the folds of his jacket to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of the Choice Academy. Pausing to rustle through his pockets, he produced a card, swiped it in front of a grimy console and shuffled through a classroom door.
Greg emerged into a drab room, its uniform greyness broken only by a series of consoles blinking from its walls, the words LIBERTAS EX ELECTIONE emblazoned above each of them. A security guard in a crumpled G4S uniform glanced up to acknowledge his arrival.
Settling into an unoccupied station, Greg jabbed idly at the screen in front of him. With a flat whine, the system kicked into life. Inserting his Unique Learner Card into the slot, he pulled on his headset.
Whirrr. Click. "Smith, Gregory," a soft American accent crackled through his headphones. "Welcome to the Choice Academy - your remaining balance is #163;19.84." Greg took a moment to scan through the premium options the system had booted: "Oxford O-level Mathematics ... Cambridge A-level Physics ... Princeton Classical Civilisation IGCSE."
Glancing at his remaining balance, Greg flicked his finger up the screen, scrolling the list down towards the cheaper course categories. After a moment he touched the display again, bringing its slide to a sudden halt. Pausing, he considered the subsidised options in front of him: "McDonald's Customer Service and Food Hygiene ... Clarks UK: Advanced Shoe Care ... Genesis Foundation: Alternative Biology." Settling on a choice, he tapped the screen once more, sending the system whirring into action.
The console refreshed, revealing a static video clip below which the usual plethora of contextual data on its users was posted: everything from average employment rates to insurance tariffs and life expectancy. Leaning forward, Greg prodded the video and pulled a grubby notebook from the folds of his jacket.
A man in a smooth suit looked out from the screen: "Welcome to Modern Citizenship, proudly sponsored by Barclays Capital.
"It's hard to imagine society before the choice revolution. We may take unlimited choice for granted now, but it's easy to forget that only 50 years ago the state dictated what students should learn at school. This resulted in widespread over-education and was economically inefficient ..."
Relaxing in his chair, Greg watched the video play out, rousing only occasionally to flick drifting advertisements from the screen.
Stepping off his bus at the end of the day, Greg tripped. Glancing back to see what had wrong-footed him, he saw an elderly man collapsed on the pavement, his wrinkled lips now moaning softly into the gutter.
Pulling his jacket tighter around his neck, Greg turned for home, the man's contorted face lingering in his mind. "What an odd choice to make," he mused. Behind him, the bus pulled away with a gentle hiss and floated gracefully along the boulevard. As its lights faded into the dusk, a peacefulness descended on the street, interrupted only by the occasional sob rising from the gutter below.
Seth Kitson is a recent graduate, a son of a teacher and will soon take up a job at an educational consultancy.