'Greater parental choice, schools released from central interference'

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

The most reform-minded members of the Government already understand the trends that will reshape public services, including education.

Throughout this parliament, Tony Blair has consistently argued that successful modern organisations, whether public or private sector, are guided by the demands of their consumers. Alan Milburn had it right when in 2003 as Secretary of State for Health, he said : "We are in a consumer age whether people like it or not."

This trend will only accelerate in the next 20 years. It means that the role of governments will change. Public services managed and directed from the centre will never be able to respond effectively to the needs of individuals. Instead of engaging in the mass production of services, the Government's responsibility will be to guarantee access to high quality services for everybody.

A majority of the public already supports the idea that charitable and private sector providers should deliver taxpayer-funded health and education, as long as equal access for all is guaranteed. Speaking last month, and signalling that "opportunity" will be one of the underlying themes of Labour's general election campaign, the Prime Minister said:

"People don't want a minimalist state, but nor do they want the old centralised state. Instead, they want the state to empower them, to give them the means to make the most of their own lives."

The best sources of the Government's forward thinking are the five-year plans published last summer by the big spending departments. These show that plans for health are more suited to the future than its somewhat old-fashioned plans for education. The Department of Health wants to give much more power to patients to choose their place of treatment, including, within some limits, private hospitals; Education, in contrast, offers no stronger rights for parents over choice of schools and keeps the artificial barrier between public and private provision rigidly in place. It is possible to imagine that parts of the NHS will look very different in 2025 as innovative new provision emerges in response to patient demand; it is difficult to imagine the same degree of innovation and change for schools.

The education policies of countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark provide a more forward-looking model. Parents can choose from both state and independent schools and have their choices funded by government.

New schools can open easily in response to parental demand.

The lack of central regulation has allowed a chain of Swedish taxpayer-funded independent schools, Kunskapsskolan ("knowledge schools"), to develop the kind of "personalised" curriculum that Mike Tomlinson's report on 14 to19 education has proposed for England in 10 years' time.

Greater parental choice, schools released from central interference and politicians able to concentrate on the big picture - the world of 2025 looks like a happy place.

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