It's a result but the wrong one

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
THE awkward thing about democracy is that you do not always get the result you want. Labour councillors in Bristol discovered this to their cost last week when voters in a referendum chose to freeze their council tax, with potentially disastrous consequences for local schools.

The city now finds itself in the bizarre situation whereby local Labour politicians are preparing, albeit reluctantly, to make deep cuts in education at a time when their national leader, Tony Blair, is promising increased public investment.

The result shows the dangers of using referendums to determine any single issue. In the case of education the hazards are especially obvious. Because of demographic changes, characterised by the emergence of the DINKY couple (dual income, no kids) and the pensioners' "grey vote", parents with children at school now form a minority of the electorate. In the Bristol area, too, one-in-five families send their offspring to private schools, while others transport them to nearby Bath or elsewhere.

One alutory lesson to be drawn is that we should never take at face value opinion polls which suggest the public is willing to pay higher taxes in return for better schools. The demographic and social conditions which led to the Bristol upset could see support for funding public education across the country eroded in the future.

Indeed, this worrying scenario underpins the rationale for the Government's latest school reforms, set out in last week's Green Paper. This argues that growing numbers of increasingly prosperous parents are likely to shun state schools - and the taxes to pay for them - unless they are radically improved.

The consequences of voters in general turning their backs on support for public education is, if anything, even more worrying. If that were to happen, schools would be forced to rely on fundraising and public-private partnerships to stay in business or be allowed to charge fees. Then disadvantage would increase. Reckless experiments in single-issue democracy are unlikely to help.

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