Choice? There's nothing clever about the 'C' word

16th April 2010 at 01:00

So now it's official. The blue touch-paper has duly been lit. There's an election on the way.

And let's hope it's a good clean fight because if there's one thing we all need it's a restored faith in politics and politicians. We need the public - and especially our students - to see that choosing a career in public service, be it at Westminster, in local government or by becoming a teacher or nurse, is something to be proud of. We don't all have our heads stuffed deep in the communal trough.

And if it is to be a clean fight, let's call on all parties to refrain from using the "C" word. It's not big or grown up or clever. In fact, it's downright deceptive.

"C", of course, stands for choice.

Because the trouble with the word "choice" is that it's easy to be duped into assuming that it is always, by default, positive. It carries the implication, like so many other feel-good words (think of "courage" or "leadership"), that choice is something to celebrate.

So, before we hang out the bunting at the prospect of more parental choice, let's pause a second. As Barry Schwartz taught us in his arresting little book The Paradox of Choice, choice can end up leaving us feeling unnerved or confused - or worse. Following on from the work of psychologists David Myers and Robert Lane, Schwartz concludes that the current abundance of choice can lead to depression and feelings of loneliness.

Running amok in life's pick 'n' mix can, apparently, leave us wondering endlessly whether we made the right choices after all. Take a trivial example - shopping. I head into a clothes shop to buy a pair of jeans. Suddenly I'm confronted with a bamboozling range of choices. Do I want slim fit, straight leg, long leg, short leg, stretch, classic, boot leg, easy fit, pre-washed, unwashed, pre-stressed, no-stressed, blue, grey, acid wash, patched, short waist, long waist, large fit, comfort fit, stove pipe, wide legged, or recycled? Oh yes, and should they be denim?

All I wanted was a pair of jeans.

It makes you hanker after the days when your mum made all clothing decisions for you. That reluctant end-of-August visit to MS seems positively halcyon in the shimmering recess of our memories. The only choice was did they fit.

That's why I suspect the politicians' ongoing flirtation with parental choice will prove an unforgiving policy cul-de-sac. Because it's hard to see how letting various parent groups set up their own schools will do anything other than open up a wider divide between our best and worst performing schools, especially if it means (as it will) that the students from more privileged backgrounds are siphoned from existing school A into shiny new school B.

Research suggests the same. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2007 that "it is not clear that pupils and parents in the lowest socio-economic classes are able to take advantage of school choice ... Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less likely to make the move to a better school than children from wealthier backgrounds."

So while we might see the Toby Youngs of this world get giddy at the chance to set up their own school, it seems naive to assume that parents who aren't members of the suburban intelligentsia having the time or resources to fathom a complex system of how to set up their own school.

My guess is that it's a choice most parents don't want anyway. Wouldn't we all simply prefer to have a really good school based squarely in our local neighbourhood?

But to achieve that would require a change of political message from all three parties. They would need to say something rather shocking.

They would need to say we want every child to attend a good local school, and we're going to work with parents and teachers to make it happen. If your local school isn't good enough, we'll make it better as a matter of absolute priority. But what we won't do is to encourage the students with the most clued-up parents to make a bolt for some enticing new "free" or "sponsor" school the other side of town.

Together, they'd declare, we're going to improve the system. We'll get the best teachers and school leaders into the schools that need them most. We'll ensure that gifted and talented students are catered for, whatever their parents' backgrounds. We'll use one-to-one catch-up to make sure that every student is making required progress.

But we won't do it by dangling the deceptive carrot of choice.

If education matters, it matters for every child, not just those whose parents know how to play the system.

So let's wash out our mouths and no longer utter the "C" word. It doesn't mean we're dumbing down or accepting mediocrity or consigning pupils to a poor deal. It's quite the reverse, in fact.

It means we're saying that every child deserves a first-rate education. And that ought to be a matter of entitlement, not of choice.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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