Let's choose catchment area, not market force

17th January 1997 at 00:00
One of the things that most sharply distinguishes the world we live in from any previous era is that most of us have so much choice. From computers and dishwashers to savings accounts and vegetables, the choice of size, label, service, performance or what-have-you is infinitely greater than it was 30 years ago.

I am not sure that I like all this choice. Those awesome tables in Which? magazine telling me which music centre will allow me to play Beethoven's Fifth backwards, while I simultaneously record the shipping forecast in octophonic sound, just give me a headache. As for holidays, the bewildering choice leaves me paralysed with indecision until late summer, when there is little to choose from anyway.

I yearn for the 1970s, when a third of the world was Communist (unwelcoming), another third fascist (unacceptable) and the remainder was more or less inaccessible. Cornwall, Wales or Kipling's preference, Sussex by the sea, was a range of options I could cope with.

The trouble with choice is that it's time-consuming and anxiety-inducing. While I'm choosing things - comparing prices and performance - I could have read a book, gone for a walk or spent another hour in bed. If I had no choice, I wouldn't worry about choosing the right holiday; I would just get on and enjoy it.

Politicians have no such doubts. Choice, as they see it, is what we should all have and choice is what we're going to get, even for telephones and gas. The attraction, I guess, is that it releases them from the obligation to fund quality. State pensions may be inadequate, but there's ample choice of private schemes. And all the schools may have leaking roofs but at least I have a choice between them.

Shopping is the true modern religion. Just as our great-grandparents went to church, we go to the shopping mall and we read catalogues and consumer magazines with the same dedication as they read the Bible. Politicians assume, therefore, that we cannot be persuaded to take anything seriously unless we have to "shop around" for it. This applies especially to education, an area in which it has always been hard to inspire enthusiasm among the English.

An Audit Commission report published just before Christmas, however, showed the pitfalls. Parental choice of schools, it said, was being pursued at the expense of educational efficiency: some schools were overcrowded, while others had as many as a quarter of their places empty, thus wasting expensive buildings and equipment. And yet parents were still dissatisfied: appeals against school allocations have been rising steadily and now total 50,000 a year. In inner London, fewer parents get their first choice of school than in the heyday of the Inner London Education Authority.

The culprit is a vicious spiral. School A is marginally better (or, at least, perceived as such by parents) than school B. Word gets around. Year by year, school B loses pupils and money; school A gains. School B becomes quite a bit worse: it has to reduce staff (and, therefore, the range of subject specialisms), it delays repairs, redecoration, replacement of textbooks.

The reasons to choose A rather than B, once marginal, become significant. Increasingly, the children who go to B are reluctant conscripts. The world being what it is, they tend to come from the less motivated, less clever, less prosperous families.

Good staff flee; morale plummets; the poor intake starts to show up in exam results. Parents who would once have accepted B as a tolerable, if second-best, alternative to A will now move heaven and earth - and go right through the appeals system - to keep their children out of it.

In other words, parental choice, far from raising standards, has created a bad school where previously there was a decent, if not a brilliant one. And more parents are far more dissatisfied than they ever were before. Economists may call it "market failure" and, from the customer's point of view, it is. But exploiting a marginal advantage over your competitors, and eventually putting them out of business, is what markets are all about.

Is the answer, as the Conservative right proposes, to follow the market to its logical conclusion? School A could be allowed to expand indefinitely. One of two things would then follow. The buildings would become grossly over-crowded and classes grossly over-sized until parents decided that it wasn't such a good school after all and sent their children elsewhere; the market would thus correct itself. The other possibility is that the successful school acquires new buildings, perhaps taking over the unused ones at School B.

Neither road appeals very much to me. The first turns school A into yet another bad school, while the second would create another generation of split-site monsters. So can we think of anything else?

The Audit Commission suggests "managing" the market, which looks to me like another term for rigging it. May I dare to suggest that we abandon the market in education and go back to catchment areas? And that, in designing such areas, we require local authorities (remember them?) to "have the greatest regard to" (or something like that - I'm sure our parliamentary draughtsmen can come up with a suitably sonorous phrase) the need for every school to have a balanced ability intake?

I know this is a dinosaurish, old-Labourish kind of thing to propose. But we were assured that parental choice would rid us of failing schools, and yet there seem to be as many of them around as ever. Isn't it time we dinosaurs were allowed a crack? We shall be told that parents won't stand for it.

But we are always being told that parents won't stand for things, such as testing 7-year-olds and introducing student loans. The more sensible parents will realise that a school is nearly always good when it has a balanced intake, and that the guarantee of one good local school is better than any amount of choice. I suspect that many will welcome the release from studying a dozen school prospectuses and dragging themselves round "open days". They will spend the time reading to their children or taking them for walks. Or, if they prefer, they can spend longer working out whether Ibiza with Thomson really is better value than the Algarve with Sunworld.

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