'The distinction between public and private will break down'

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Three think-tank gurus predict the future

It often feels, especially for practitioners, that education in Britain has been subject to permanent revolution. No sooner has one government finished its work than another reform programme begins.

By 2025, we will no doubt have been through at least another four or five cycles. The direction, of course, depends on the political constellation. Although education often seems like a world unto itself, it will be strongly influenced by the fortunes of the two biggest parties and the policy arguments that take place within them. The current direction of travel will be broadly maintained, however, for the good reason that opponents have presented no credible alternative manifesto.

It is impossible to deprive parents of a choice in the education of their children, much as many would desire to do so. By 2025 we may have learned how to extend parental choice to those who do not enjoy it in practice.

Yellow buses will be as common a sight in these islands as they are in the United States.

Parents will make a choice in consultation with a public service broker who helps them to navigate the system. The local education authority, which died by stealth rather than by a single blow, will have reinvented itself as a commissioner of educational services, helping to assemble packages of education for people in its charge, like a clearing house. Or at least the more imaginative ones will.

There will be far less concern by 2025 about whether such functions take place in the public or the private sector. Local authorities' competitors will be voluntary and private- sector companies. The local monopoly enjoyed by LEAs will have disappeared along with most of their traditional functions. One of the forms that will take over will be new public-sector brands that will pool budgets and centralise management, realising economies of scale and releasing headteachers from budgetary overload.

In other ways, the distinction between public and private, which has organised so much of post-war education policy, will break down. It will be more common for pupils to be educated in private schools at public expense.

The deregulation of the rules governing the opening of schools will have led to a flourishing number of schools.

The nature of the private sector will be quite different from today. It will educate at much lower cost and will take in a far wider section of the nation. It will continue to be selective and the popular demand for selection will be a running political sore on the left. It will also be common for pupils to cross the boundary between public and private, getting some of their lessons in one and some in the other.

That will also mean the teaching profession becomes more fluid. More teachers will be self or privately employed and far more will negotiate their own times after a bloody battle in the next decade reduces the power of the public-sector unions for good.

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