Big is beautiful . . .for the time being

20th September 1996 at 01:00
At the recent "Educating Scotland" conference, Lindsay Paterson, a Moray House professor, posed the politicians with a dilemma. He challenged them to reconcile the collectivism which lay behind the welfare state and a system of universal public education with the increasing demands for individualism which the educated products of that public "system" were now calling for.

None of the politicians took up the challenge, because to do so would have required them to state the truth - that collectivism and individualism are incompatible and cannot be reconciled. Indeed, there only appears to be a dilemma because Tory education policy of the last few years has pretended that you can have both, that the individual can have whatever he chooses and the state can still provide a planned, efficient system which caters for all within a strictly limited budget - a "cake and eat it" scenario which is frankly farcical.

The individualism which has come under the banner of parental choice suggests that parents can have whatever education they want for their child merely by asking for it. We have not quite got the lengths of "any time of day, any pattern of holidays" - but education has been presented as a commodity not unlike a CD: you see, you buy, you consume, you throw away.

However, consumption patterns depend on fashion, hence all the end-of-season sales of products which did not catch the public imagination. On this basis parents should all be able to go to school A this year and school B next year. But such a system would require elastic-sided classrooms in elastic-sided schools to accommodate the constant changes in pupil population which fashion would dictate.

Take the case of the rather enormous Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow which everyone is, at present, desperately trying to get into in the mistaken belief that it is the only place which can properly educate their child. It only needs a few parents to decide that "small is beautiful" to send their child to some other local - but currently unfashionable - school, and for these pupils to do well, for the fashion to change. There would then be a flood of children out of the suddenly unfashionably large Holyrood.

However, not even the Tory government really believes in totally free choice or individualism, because there is another god which has to be worshipped, and that is cost effectiveness, or cheapness. Imagine just how much it would cost if schools had to be set up, enlarged, then taken down all over the place as parents changed their minds about where they wanted their children educated.

One minute it is fashionable to educate them in the city centre, the next a nice small rural school seems attractive. The trouble with schools is that there is long-term capital investment in the buildings, and cost effectiveness means that people must be persuaded to use ones which are available rather than rushing in unpredictable numbers all over the place.

Of course, the sum total of individual decisions does lead to a coherent whole which looks similar to a planned system. But you cannot guarantee how long the consumption pattern will last. On the other hand it is also true that, under a planned system, individuals might feel that their individual choices have been satisfied if the planned provision matches what they would have chosen if they had had a choice.

Moreover, such coincidence between a collective system and individual choice need not be a rare event. Although planned systems have earned a reputation for being bureaucratic, and of running by pointless rules and regulations, there is nothing to stop them taking account of what people actually want and of planning accordingly.

We can see this working in the way schools draw up their subject provision. The rapidly increasing demand for computer science means that most schools have changed what they offer to take account of this. They still have a planned curriculum, but it accords with what the majority want, although individual demands for unusual subject combinations or minority subjects still cannot be met - at least not if the schools are to stay within budget.

The way to reconcile collectivism with individualism is to engage in a human planning process - one which takes account of what people actually want, one which operates the inevitable rules flexibly to accommodate as many individual choices as possible. But at the end of the day a good education system for all children can only be delivered through a public system which is properly planned. A system of unfettered choice will only serve those who are the most vociferous and competent consumers.

The dilemma for the politicians is to be honest enough to admit that, particularly in an election year when the temptation is to promise all things to all men.

Judith Gillespie is convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. She writes here in a personal capacity.

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