Why freedom of choice is often no freedom at all

24th September 2010 at 01:00

All I wanted was a cup of tea. Small, medium or large? Caffeinated or decaffeinated? White, green or black? Whole leaf or leaf tips? Milk, lemon, sugar? Picked at twilight by fairies and transported by unicorn? The degree of choice was overwhelming. I could not choose and left in need of something much stronger to drink.

Research by a professor of choice (seriously) into consumers' habits shows a similar pattern. When faced with 24 varieties of jam they were unable to decide what they wanted and so did not buy any. Given just six varieties they were able to do so. Too much choice is not always a good thing. So why is the Government still obsessed with giving us yet more educational choice through free schools?

Ah, I hear you say, those free schools have worked so well in Sweden. They spend 7.1 per cent of their GDP on education. We managed 5.6 per cent before the slash-and-burn tactics on public spending. They have true egalitarianism, we have David Cameron's "Big Society" concept.

I spend the day helping at a local primary school. I am given glue, glitter, paint, feathers and sequins to help pupils finish their carnival masks. Pupils must choose some of these. Ali wants them all. "I can't choose, Miss." There is an artistic explosion of colours and liquid and the result is boldly original if messy. We chat. What secondary school would he like to go to? "Do I have a choice?" We list likely secondary schools: all good schools trying to tackle educational inequality and almost every other form of inequality every single day for every single child. So why then are these schools not being given more of a helping hand? Why does the Education Secretary hail free schools as the answer to educational equality?

The Department for Education has set aside more than #163;50 million to support this policy. This is not new funds - it has come from a reduction in funding for technology in schools. Weird logic. Especially as in a recent poll of local parents to see what type of school they would like in west London - a place where a free school is imminent - technology and science were the most desired subjects.

Those in favour of free schools cite the inevitable "driving up of standards". Again I am confused. The media was blaring out results last month confirming many more pupils were securing top grades. Are standards not already being lifted by schools?

Back to Sweden. Their free schools seem to be predominately based in rich areas and are full of middle-class children whose parents have taken them out of community schools. And what about those much-vaunted standards? Fact: there is no difference in attainment at A-level between pupils educated in a free school and those not.

Sweden: the world's most egalitarian country. England: facing what Ed Balls warned would be "educational apartheid". Ali: being given no additional meaningful educational choice at all. What a choice.

Julie Greenhough is an English teacher at an independent school in London.

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