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Schools can't be sold like shampoo

Freedom of choice must be a debate about opportunity not market-based products, says Ewan Aitken

The theologian and philosopher John Macmurray, to whom our present Prime Minister has looked for inspiration, saw a unity of knowledge that bound together the person and the world in which the person had their existence.

For Macmurray there exists a tying together of our awareness of ourselves and our awareness of the world around us in a relationship of experiences that brings understanding and an awareness of something beyond simply a material or biological explanation of existence and meaning.

His philosophy begins with the person, not simply as a material or biological being but as a complex pattern of experience, rooted in relationships with the world, which feeds that personality and how they act and understand their actions.

Macmurray believes we find out most about ourselves in our relationships with others. The deeper our relationships with others, the freer we are to be true to ourselves. These relationships are a driving force that lead to the true nature and goal of personal existence ultimately fulfilled in the achievement of a world community, living in positive relationship in a world free from violence and war.

The Dalai Lama puts it perhaps more succinctly when he says: "By nature, especially as a human being, my interests are not independent of others. My happiness depends on other's happiness."

He goes on to say: "We are social animals. Moreover, the structures of the modern economy, education and so on illustrate that the world has become a smaller place and that we depend heavily on one another. Under such circumstances, I think the only option is to live and work together harmoniously and keep in our minds the interest of the whole of humanity."

If it is the case that not only will all our choices affect others but that the consequence of the effect on others will have an effect on us, how will that influence ideas about choice in education, which is flavour of the political sound bite month at the moment?

The very real danger of what is being offered by the Tories is that it completely ignores the consequences of individual choice. Instead it uses choice in an emotive sense, as if to challenge the idea is to remove freedoms. It is well known that the most effective political message in converting people to your cause is one that sneaks under the intellectual and hits the emotional.

In fact, what they are promoting is not choice in opportunity but product purchase, a market economy in education that equates education with choosing cereal or shampoo. The evidence from the railways, the buses, the NHS and the water and sewage utilities is that the market is too unsophisticated a tool to deliver effectively what public services are there to deliver - not products but opportunities, some of which, by necessity, need to be subsidised.

In England, the Labour Party is in danger of travelling down the same road with its choice agenda. While still understanding that public services need to deliver opportunities, it is doing so based on a choice model that articulates itself in product form - for example, the city academy, the specialist school, the faith school. The problem with each of these is not that they in themselves are inherently bad. But when our task is to deliver opportunity for all, their negative effects on others outweigh the positive impact on those who attend them.

For example, my question in benchmarking the effectiveness of city academies is to look at what happened to those who were unable to get in rather than those who did. Every school adds something significant to the community it serves and every community is more of a community because it has a school. It is not only schools being able to deliver the social capital that is behind such a statement.

The point is that the more you remove a school from its community, the more significant is the loss of the school's ability to be what it can be in its community. And there will be nothing to replace that social capital, so communities and society as a whole will suffer.

A market-based system that, by its very nature, will not take account of the consequences of the decisions involved in product choice will undermine much more than simply local schools. It will create a culture of individualism at another, more fundamental layer of society and remove one of the principle drivers of social capital that underpin society.

Freedom of choice must be a debate about opportunity not product, and the consequences of choice must be clear. Otherwise, those who wish to promote the primacy of the individual over the community will, ironically, reduce the ability of individuals to be freely themselves.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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