Parents should be free to make choices

17th March 2006 at 00:00
The National Union of Teachers is opposed to the education Bill's advocacy of trust schools and proposals to free-up education. It argues that the Government's "obsession" with choice and diversity is likely to damage schools and destroy links with local communities through the local education authority. It dislikes the concept of choice in education and views local, and indeed central, government as essential - part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

This is old thinking. Communities are essential to individuals living happy and fulfilled lives. Destroy communities, and the structures that make life tolerable are put under jeopardy. But I do not see local government as essential to the building of communities, nor do I believe communities are built by the state.

The Government has no direct role in the churches, mosques, temples, clubs, societies, sports teams and informal groupings that underpin and give value to our lives. Why do we deem local government essential to building education communities?

The disparagement of choice is equally misguided. The underlying assumption is that individuals are unable to make choices about schooling, or that choice necessarily favours the middle classes. This is wrong on both scores.

Can someone tell me why individuals are able to choose their cars, religion (or not), houses, jobs, holidays and so on, but not a school?

Give anyone something free and without any choice, and what is given will never be valued and cherished in the same way. It simply is not true that choice will hurt the most vulnerable. The left-of-centre academic, Julian Le Grand, recently argued that choice and competition are "equitable and socially just", and do not operate against the most vulnerable.

The middle classes already have choice, either by paying fees for private schools, or by moving homes or buying in tuition, or otherwise using their muscle to get places at desirable state schools. More choice would benefit the most vulnerable, not further damage them.

Let us give the least well-off the same boon of choice that the middle classes have, rather than patronising them. The 21st century will see a greatly reduced role for the state in Britain and abroad. Why can't the National Union of Teachers embrace the new century?

Nothing better explains its approach than its recent conference slogan "Putting teachers first". This implies that everything else comes second - including children and parents. And before the NUT comes back with a defensive response that fails to engage with what I am saying, let me make it clear that I have much respect for what unions have achieved over the years, including the NUT -though its support for the strikes in the mid-1980s did enduring damage to the profession and children.

And I cannot understand how it can say on its website, "the NUT believes that teachers in independent schools make a valuable contribution to the education of their children which is equal to that of teachers in the state sector", when it is so closed to the benefits that greater independence might bring state schools.

My TES column has provoked a number of readers to fiery denunciations. My calls for greater independence in schools, and for more contact between both sectors, were attacked as absurd and unworkable. My only wish is that these teachers and the NUT would start thinking less of their own ideology and more of others, including children, parents, and the great majority of other teachers.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington college, Berkshire

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