Ruling may serve to bridge sector divide

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Of a dog standing on its hind legs, Dr Johnson said that it was not done well, and it was surprising it was done at all. The same could be said of the Office of Fair Trading's investigation into fee-fixing in independent schools. It found 50 schools exchanging information on planned annual fee rises (for both day and boarding pupils) and judged this an anti-competitive practice.

The OFT appears to have made what philosophers call a category error. Until 2000, the schools were exempt from competition law. The change was prompted by the belief, held by new Labour and the the Tories, that free-market principles can apply to almost any activity. But markets are a nonsense in schools. This is because the purchaser crucially determines the quality of the product. The "best" school - the one that is likely to enjoy the highest exam results and the fewest discipline problems - is the one that attracts the brightest pupils from the most affluent homes. There are other factors, but that is the most important. High entry barriers, in fees and exams, guarantee a school's exclusivity. And exclusivity is what parents pay for.

But does the OFT (or the Government) have a hidden agenda? Suppose the schools now lower their fees and compete on price, as the OFT apparently wishes them to do. Since they are non-profit-making and since staff salaries are not significantly higher than those in the state sector, their options are limited. They can employ fewer teachers and increase class sizes. They can cram in more children, again making classes larger and using facilities more intensively. They can spend less on books, laboratories, and sports halls. They would thus - except for the boarding element - become more like state schools, and the gap between per capita spending in the two sectors would narrow. This, you may think, would allow a fairer test of claims to offer a superior education which somehow derives from independent status rather than from mere money.

If fees are lowered, however, the schools will come within reach of more families. Another entry barrier - the child's ability and motivation - will then rise and the schools will preserve their advantages over the state sector. Independent schools will become more like elite grammar schools, open to talent from a much wider range of the population. And if their spending moves closer to that in state schools, it would be easier for the Government to pay fees on behalf of children from poor families.

This is what many commentators and politicians, including some close to Tony Blair, would like to see. They argue that independent schools should operate "needs-blind" entry policies: they would admit solely on the results of competitive exams and then, after a means test, the Government would pick up all or part of the bill for children whose parents could not afford the full fees. Is the OFT's ruling the first step on the road to that model?

* Laughter is nearly always better than anger. David Steel reckoned his leadership of the Liberal party was fatally undermined by how Spitting Image portrayed him cowering beside a dominant David Owen. The Tory government of the early 1960s lost much credibility because it was mercilessly satirised on the BBC's That Was The Week That Was. And if Tory party members vote against David Cameron for the leadership, some credit must go to Craig Brown, who has brilliantly lampooned Cameron's speeches in the Tory house journal, the Daily Telegraph.

Ted Wragg's work bears comparison with all those better-known examples.

Like all great satirists, his effectiveness lay in his deep knowledge of what he was satirising and in his capacity to translate it into a fantasy world of Tony Zoffis, Ruth Dalek and Swineshire education committee.

I do not think it an exaggeration to say that, bad as the past 20 years have been for schools, they would have been much worse without the subversive effects of Ted's mockery.

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