Show me an exit from this maze of choice

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
If it is true that the next election will be fought on the issue of choice, I shall be depressed, even suicidal. There is nothing unusual about this reaction, if we are to believe Barry Schwartz, an American social psychologist, whose book The Paradox of Choice is now the buzz of New York.

Unfortunately, its message seems not to have penetrated the health or education departments in the UK, still less 10 Downing Street.

Schwartz says that, in his local supermarket, he finds 285 varieties of biscuits, 61 varieties of suntan oil and sunblock, 80 pain relievers and 175 salad dressings. In the electronics store, he finds 110 different televisions and 74 stereo tuners. This choice is about as appealing as the cod liver oil that children once had to swallow - Margaret Thatcher's shrill use of the word "choice" made it sound exactly like some sort of medicine - and I concur with Schwartz that "clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction, even to clinical depression".

Choice works with biscuits. If you don't like the biscuits you bought this week, you can try another brand next week. It doesn't work so well with TVs because, once you've bought one, you don't want to invest in another. I have kept the same TV for 20 years because I can't decide between the range of new models on offer.

Education and health take you to a new level of anxiety. If you have chosen one hospital for your hip replacement operation, you cannot then decide that your hip doesn't feel right and have it done again at another hospital. I suppose that, having chosen a school, you can withdraw your child but, in practice, the process is long and complicated. Even if you have second, third and fourth children, allowing you to learn from mistakes, all sorts of pressures, including simple convenience, persuade you to send them all to the same school. With schools and hospitals, you need to make the right choice first time round. The anxiety that Schwartz describes becomes almost unbearable, and the greater the choice, the greater the anxiety.

The extent of dissatisfaction with schools - and the number of appeals against admissions decisions - has risen steadily since the Tories first introduced choice to the system in the early 1980s. That is because offering choice in services where it cannot really exist inevitably leads to disappointment. Everybody who works in education knows that choice is a fraud. The Tories first used the word to defend grammar schools. But parents did not select grammar schools; the grammar schools selected their pupils. Nothing has really changed, except that the selection has become more iniquitous. Oversubscribed church schools use primary school references, priestly recommendations and parental interviews to decide which children should get places. Thus even the "awkward squad" that grammar schools coped with - bright children from rough homes who got through the 11-plus - are excluded. Then the church schools are admired (and even more oversubscribed) because they get the best results. Those results are merely a proxy for parental support and motivation - the most important influence on pupil achievement.

Nearly all teachers understand it, and so do most parents once they have experienced the system. Only politicians and credulous journalists (which means most journalists) seem unable to grasp the point. I am too old to worry about choice of schools, too healthy to worry about hospitals. But I am still driven near to suicide by the state of our political debate.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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