Hello, is that the hapless hotline?

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Last week David Blunkett announc-ed another scheme in his plan to introduce accountability and fairness into the educational system: a hotline to the Department for Education and Employment which parents can phone if they have not gained a satisfactory response to a problem from their children's school or their local education authority.

The actual level of this phoneline's heat is currently being debated, with officials at the DFEE bleakly anticipating a future of jammed switchboards by parents complaining about Miss Blenkinsop's tardiness in marking homework, the broken paving stone outside the infants' entrance and the PE teacher's habit of rapping boys' heads with his knuckles as he walks past. But then isn't parent power one of today's intrinsically good things, like clean water and democracy?

According to the current orthodoxy, every institution and body, whether it's a supermarket, a railway company or an education system, is treated as if it's a problem with the same set of solutions: install some managers and give them "the right to manage", assume that the people actually doing the job are a part of the problem rather than the solution, define the service you are offering to your customers, provide a structure according to which they can complain and obtain redress. Then step back and watch the service improve.

In some sectors this works - at least partially. If I get tired of Sainsbury, I can go to Safeway and then change to Tesco, or even go to a deli or a corner shop (if it hasn't closed down). If lots and lots more people want to go to Safeway, then they'll build another even bigger superstore in response. If I travel by train, of course I want to be delivered on time and in reasonable shape.

Today's new undeferential Brit is starting to act like a customer in all sorts of ways. My brother-in-law, a GP, was called out in the middle of the night for an absurdly trivial non-ailment. When he ventured to protest, the "customer" irately responded: "I pay my taxes. It's your job to come out when I want. "

Education is in another world altogether. To say that we demand a service from the educational system is about as useful as saying we demand a service from life - and indeed any concerned parents will spend at least part of their child's school career like Job, suffering boils and plagues in silence, and part of it like King Lear on the heath, bellowing uselessly against the thunder.

All the attempts to treat education as if it were like anything else end - if they don't begin - by going wrong. I remember reading a leaflet carefully explaining my right to choose the school for my child. It was like the constitution of the old Soviet Union, which guaranteed freedom so long as you didn't try to exercise it.

And if things go wrong at school, in theory you can change schools as much as you want, just as you can surgically alter your face as much as you like. But you are liable to end up with the educational equivalent of Michael Jackson's nose.

Could it be that parental power, tied as it is to the interests of a particular child rather than the school community as a whole, can even be a bad thing? The exercise of choice is usually compared to the power of the consumers who have, through the power of their wallets, so arranged matters that you can now get extra virgin olive oil and fresh fish at the supermarket. Another comparison might be with the fisherman, operating in a sea in which the supplies of fish are depleted. If everybody kept to strict limits, then the fish stocks would rise and everybody would benefit. But the best policy for any individual fisherman is for him to fish normally and maximise his catch - while everybody else keeps to the strict limits.

I'm not claiming that concerned parents are like dishonest fishermen. It's just not obvious that families acting in their own interest, or any other simple single solution, will bring on the new educational utopia. It will just be the usual messy, compromised mixture.

Meanwhile, if David Blunkett's hotline is going to satisfy its users, it will need to be a combination of Childline, Any Questions?, In the Psychiatrist's Chair, the Samaritans and Dial-a-Prayer. I'm glad I won't be the hapless functionary picking up the phone.

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