Give choice a chance

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Putting spending power into parents' hands will also restore freedom to teachers, Andrew Haldenby believes

Successful politicians use their intuition, supported with expensive opinion research, to judge which way the wind is blowing. In regard to schools, the wind is blowing strongly towards parental choice. Last week, in the annual lecture to the Fabian Society, Tony Blair identified choice as the route to greater equity and social justice, the goals at the heart of his political programme.

He criticised the essential unfairness of the current system in which choice is only available to people who can afford to buy private education or to move into the catchment area of a better state school. He rightly said: "Choice for the many boosts equity. It gives poorer people the same choices available only to middle classes. It addresses the current inequity where the better off can switch from poor providers."

The strength of the Prime Minister's language may represent an attempt to catch up with the Conservative party, that has already proposed a "state scholarships" programme by which parents in inner cities would be given the right to choose other state schools. Over time, choice would be extended to all parents in the country.

School choice is not the preserve of any one party because it is being driven by underlying social trends to which all politicians must respond.

Society has become less class-based and less deferential. The status of education has risen as the value of manual labour has declined. It is no longer sustainable that parents in disadvantaged areas have no option but to send their children to local schools achieving poor standards. Most importantly, people now expect to make choices about all aspects of their lives. As Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, said: "We are in a consumer society whether people like it or not." By "people" he meant politicians who do not understand how society has changed.

Choice, therefore, represents a massive political opportunity. Opinion research, carried out by Reform, a non-aligned public services think-tank, shows that it is simply wrong to say that parents are not interested in their children's education. British parents have become used to a centrally-planned system and, unsurprisingly, do not know how a choice-based system would work. When the choice-based systems of other countries such as Sweden, Holland and some cities in the United States are explained to them, however, British parents demand the same rights. The enthusiasm is greatest among parents on lower incomes who have no chance of exercising choice in our current system. In Milwaukee, the first American city to introduce real choice, the city government pays for children from poor families to attend independent schools of their parents' choice. At a Reform London conference in April, Julia Doyle, an African-American mother of four children in the Milwaukee programme, explained how it had helped her to fulfil her responsibility towards her children. At the same event, Milwaukee's Democrat Mayor, John Norquist, said that choice, once given to parents, cannot be taken away. He went on to brief the Downing Street policy unit, more evidence of the gathering political interest.

Opponents of school choice have argued that it would fail because good schools would fill up and weak schools would decline further. In fact, experience in countries such as Holland, Sweden and America shows that systems respond positively and dynamically to the decisions of parents. New schools have opened, good schools have expanded and changes to curricula have been introduced. In Florida, where parents are given a choice of school if their current school is classed as failing for two consecutive years, the standards in the poorest schools have sharply improved. As Tony Blair said last week: "Choice puts pressure on low-quality providers that poorer people currently rely on."

School choice will empower teachers as much as parents. A system accountable to parents no longer needs demoralising government inspection and intervention. In fact, it requires freedom on behalf of teachers and headteachers to set the curriculum and methods of teaching and assessment.

Under Reform's proposals, choice means not only putting spending power in the hands of parents, by having current and capital spending follow the pupil, but also returning freedom of management to teachers. Extra resources can flow to schools without government strings attached.

In the US, the largest teaching unions' tried and failed to oppose school choice. They made a terrible mistake. Choice is politically compelling, has huge popular support and reconnects parents and teachers who are at the heart of the learning process. Just as much as politicians, teachers should place themselves on the right side of this argument.

Andrew Haldenby is director of research at Reform.

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