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Middle way or belt-and-braces?;Opinion

AN INTERESTING aspect of Peter Lilley's recent ill-fated speech at the Carlton Club has been the debate that didn't follow. One of the most serious thinkers in the Conservative party suggests there might be a limit to the role that the market can play in the provision of public services such as education and health, and all the frenzied inquests that follow focus on his doomed future as deputy leader of the Shadow Cabinet, rather than on the substance of his argument.

This may be because a clumsy spin oversold his RA Butler memorial lecture as the dumping of Thatcherism, but it would be a pity if the dumping of Lilley now followed without some timely discussion of the issue he raised. Mr Lilley might not be the most charismatic performer on the Tory front bench, but it is mind-boggling that his party feels able to turn its back both on what talent it has and on such a key agenda issue for regeneration.

There may also be reluctance on the Government side to delve too deep into a subject on which there is some ambivalence, if not confusion. When the Thatcher government first introduced market ideas into education, it was a terrible shock to the system. When she was deposed, we thought that all that alien language and ideology would disappear with her from the educational discourse, but it didn't. Neither her Tory successors, nor subsequently New Labour, have felt able to detach themselves from such tools as privatisation, competition, league tables and choice.

So now, mid-term in the life of the present Government, seems a good time to consider what has resulted from a market approach to schools and colleges. This is not the place for a research treatise, so I will simply open the debate by asserting that market policies may have sharpened up performance among the most academically and socially favoured, but have done nothing to solve more intractable problems lower down the scale - a belief supported by research reported by David Budge from the American Educational Research Association meeting (TES, April 30).

The real indictment of Conservative education policies rests in this marketing mantra, that you only had to foster the brightest and best in order to raise standards, since the rest might benefit from the trickle-down effect, be fobbed off with something technical, or forgotten about. The fundamental flaw here is that you can't discard any child's right to a good education as if it were a flawed product.

So has New Labour found a Middle Way on the market? This Government may have clung on to its predecessors' marketing tools, but its most important social and educational projects are targeted firmly at their victims - the children that the Tories' market-based policies did not, and could not, touch. From Excellence in Cities and education action zones to the social exclusion initiatives and even the literacy and numeracy programmes, government intervention now rules.

Business know-how and money are still in demand, particularly if they promise to deliver more effectively than public services run by local authorities, but central government is setting the rules and parameters. Middle way or belt-and-braces?

We don't have much evidence yet as to how far this ad hoc mix of central control and market forces can boost school standards, but it has certainly proved pretty disastrous for the further education colleges. Set free from local government by the Tories and given carte blanche to compete in search of students and essential funding, the colleges seem engulfed in a morass of phoney franchises, managerial failure or fraud, and mega-debt. Tighter central controls are seen as the answer - but might local or regional government have a serious role to play now, after all?

Are there limits to the role that the market can play in public services such as education? Discuss.

Patricia Rowan was editor of the TES from 1989 to 1997

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