Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Hannan: there will be winners

Daniel Hannan writes:

Last night, Toby [Young] appeared on Newsnight with the former Schools Secretary, Ed Balls. When the comprehensive-educated journalist outlined his plans to set up an independent but free school in his borough, the privately-educated Labour politician responded revealingly: “The trouble with that approach is that there will be winners”.

Yes, there will, Ed. That’s rather the point.

For 13 years, Labour education ministers favoured equality over quality: better ten “bog standard comprehensives” than nine excellent academies and one sink school. But their policy failed in its own terms. Children from our top 20 per cent of Local Education Authorities get twice as many good GCSE passes as children from our bottom twenty per cent. Twice as many!

Hannan goes on to explain that education is not a zero sum game:

LEA bureaucrats oppose parental choice because not all parents will exercise it. It’s all very well for the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie, they say; but what about the children whose parents don’t care?

Well, here’s the thing. Pushy parents raise standards across the board. Think of, say, supermarkets. No LEAs regulate them, no one sets their prices. And yet a Tesco in Northampton sells roughly the same things, at roughly the same prices, as a Tesco in Southampton. Why? Because competition ensures standards, in a way that legislation can’t. Shoppers like me, who have little idea of what they should be buying, and only the haziest notion of prices, are guaranteed a certain level of service by the discernment of more demanding customers.

No system is perfect. Freedom includes the freedom to fail. But at least, under Michael Gove’s proposals, parents could do something about it. A failed school would be allowed to close. Perhaps a visionary deputy head from nearby, or a Toby Young-style parental posse, might take over the premises. But it is surely better that poor schools should be allowed to fold than that they should remain open, blighting the life chances of successive generations.

The only people who fear competition are vested interests who realise they provide sub-standard service. If those employed in state schools want to keep their jobs, they must keep their students, and that means upping their game. If Gove introduces real freedom to the education system, the best teachers will be properly rewarded, and many good teachers who left the profession will return to it. The union dinosaurs, meanwhile, will finally go extinct.

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