Choices, choices, too many choices.

One of the false assumptions inherent in turning a ‘public service’ or ‘privilege’ into a ‘personal right’ is the belief that choice will drive up standards and, to coin the crass phrase used by the DfE during the Brown tenure, lead to ‘economic well-being’ for all.

Choice, when applied to education, risks fuelling inequality, mendacity and manipulation. The beleaguered inhabitants of the gulags during the Stalin era happened to call it ‘tufta’, a deliberative manipulation of statistics and documents, which they used to keep Uncle Joe happy and themselves from dying of hunger.

Why is this the case? If I go to eat in a restaurant, my choice drives up standards by incentivising competitors – I need to make my burger better so that she chooses my bland, fast-food outlet instead of the one over the road. If I choose to watch a series on Netflix, the quality of the series increases the chances that I will press the OK button and subscribe.

This simply does not work in education, and there is very little empirical evidence to contradict this. Allow me to express some of the reasons why.

  1. Delayed evidence. It is only years later that the full benefit of a school can be evaluated in terms of the full impact on that youngster’s life.
  2. There are too make variables. Geographic, socio-economic, demographic, and lots more ‘aphics’. My school and the school next door should have exactly the same raw materials, context, historical journey, and ability to attract the same staff. But they are totally different.
  3. Choice leads inevitably to inequity and this warps the ‘market’. The more apathetic attend the less marketised schools leading to a familiar pattern. The more marketised schools become over-subscribed, run a healthy budget surplus, and can then employ more people to massage the information and market the school more aggressively.
  4. The raw materials are unreliable – human brains and bodies do not make quick, linear and regular improvements. It has taken millions of years for the development of human intelligence. We are not now suddenly going to behave like robots (despite us being close to making ones that will).
  5. The information required to make an informed choice is at best sketchy and at worst dangerously misleading. Despite the efforts of Ofsted to get as much consistency into its reports as possible, they will never be totally consistent, nor should they be. And as for examination data – well, the system had to be reformed by Gove due to the whole-scale rigging of results. Schools have become masters of spin and marketing – many actually offer bribes to entice the punter in. Quite apart from the chaos this provokes, there are huge ethical questions about a state education system where such manipulation of information is acceptable.

Let us compare the UK with Spain, which is the non-UK country I know best.

Now there are a lot of things wrong with the state education system in España.  I would not like to work in one of its schools due to the lack of autonomy for school leaders. But there is something wonderful about a society’s acceptance that your child attends the nearest school regardless of class, colour, need or creed. Efforts to create a middle-way ‘concertado’ system have not really taken off. Send your niños to the school down the road, and if it is not great, then help the school get better.

The Spanish would never dream of publishing in national, and even more dangerously, regional newspapers, a ranking list of local schools that relies on historical, and possibly highly erroneous, information. More and more parents now exercise their choice based on the fact that ‘it got a five-star rating in the paper’, or ‘it’s high up in the league table’ rather than really thinking about the kind of school that is right for their child.

Of course, the market has worked its magic in one sense. Many schools are acting as a magnet, becoming super-schools and attracting the best teachers and thinkers. Others feed off scraps and struggle to make headway with declining budgets, estates and teaching stock (now I’m talking like an asset-stripper).

Has it worked for the economy as designed? Err, no. No five-star ranking here I’m afraid. Though there are exceptions in various parts of the country, society is defined by a growing underclass where educational achievement is declining rapidly. The Educational Endowment Foundation, who are dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, talk of a ‘tail of underachievement’ that is getting longer and longer and is not being adequately addressed within the school system.

I believe that the assumption that choice in education leads to ‘a rising tide that lifts all boats’ is a false one. Instead, it has cast too many adrift and the holes in the boats are getting wider by the minute.

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