Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tony Blair has abandoned education as a means of social promotion

A few years ago, a primary school headmistress that I know summoned the mother of a boy who was falling behind seriously on literacy, to a great extent because his parents never checked whether or not he did his homework. She decided to drive home the nature of the problem quite starkly, and asked the lady bluntly whether she wanted her son to be able to read or not. “Of course I do! Of course I want him to be able to read! I don’t want him to read books like a poof though.” The poor child is not unique in being cursed with stupid, irresponsible parents, and that’s not something that the school or the State can do anything about (not unless someone is prepared to introduce some kind of procreation licence, and I’m sure that there are those who think that would be a jolly good idea). I don’t know what happened to that boy, but I do know the teacher, and I’m pretty sure that she did her damnedest to make sure that he did learn to read, and that consequently he stood a better chance of breaking out of the vicious spiral of ignorance with all its attached evils that he was destined for by his parents and background. But then he was lucky enough through a shake of life’s dice to have fallen in the catchment area of that particular school and to have landed on that particular teacher. And of course that’s one of the things that free, universal schooling is supposed to provide: the opportunity for social promotion.

Tony Blair’s great radical reform of schools may not explicitly set out to do so, but one of its main effects is going to be to make sure that the chances of children like the one mentioned above to rise above the status into which they were born thanks to education will be reduced to a minimum. They’re already not great as things stand. I have yet to read the White Paper, but Tony Blair’s speech given on Monday at Downing Street to a group of parents (which parents? Randomly selected ones pulled off the street? Probably not) is sufficiently detailed and long-winded to provide a pretty good idea of what is involved.

The overall goal is “a system of independent, self-governing state schools with fair funding and fair admissions”. This sounds good, you have to admit, until you try and fathom what exactly Tony means by this. It’s a classic piece of Blair rhetoric in that way. I’m particularly curious to find out what he means by “fair”. This pine marten sets a great deal of store by “fair”, and over the years I’ve come to believe that he doesn’t. In Tony’s own words, ”within two years, virtually every school will be a specialist school”. In practice, this means that there will no longer be a real National Curriculum. Schools will be able to decide what they do and don’t teach, and will be actively encouraged to develop specialisations in certain subject, and then to ”market them to parents”, who “should be able to exercise choice” under the new system, but more on that later. The curriculum will be determined by parents’ groups, charities, businesses, faith organisations, anyone who cares to have a say in it really, and importantly anyone who cares to offer some funding. Indeed, they will be actively encouraged to set up their own schools under the new proposals if they don’t like what’s on the market. I can hear Sir Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI, sometimes referred to as the Bosses’ Union) now: "Students learning Ancient Greek instead of Accounting costs British Business eight-hundred billion quid a decade!" The only people who will not have a say in this are local education authorities (LEAs). LEAs will monitor standards and commission services, but not run schools. Councils will liaise and mediate, but won’t be education providers.

Really it boils down to this: the State is giving up on providing universal, good quality education. Instead, as for everything else that the British state has washed its hands of in recent years, education will be opened to the universal panacea that is The Market. That’s not leftwing paranoia, Tony said so, not me: “There will in one sense be a market. The patient and the parent will have much greater choice. But it will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power”. The last part of that sentence is disingenuous nonsense, as the Blairs must surely know following their efforts to make sure that their children went to the best schools. If it is true that education will remain free, the much-vaunted parental choice will only apply to those who are best placed to take advantage of the new system through their background, educational level, postcode, inclination and ability to do so. The boy with the useless parents at the beginning of this story would not benefit from this alleged choice that his parents have. So those that will benefit will be those that already have the greatest ability to make the system work for them, and therefore the children who have the least need of the State’s help. Children born into poorly educated or simply poor backgrounds or areas are being abandoned. The State is giving up trying to offer social promotion through education, it’s taking away the opportunity to rise purely on one’s own merits, through one’s own work, assisted by the State. In fact, it’s giving up on trying to help those who can’t help themselves.

And if the State stops doing for its citizens the things that they cannot do on their own, then what exactly is the State for apart from its own perpetuation?

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26. (1)


Dave said...

Great post, couldn't agree more. Blair is starting to believe his own spin.

Marcin Tustin said...

While I recognise the force of your argument, I fear that much the same situation exists now, for the same reason: For a market system to work, institutions (sellers) must be allowed to fail. Optimally, those that are underperforming and are destined to go bankrupt ought to be put out of their misery immediately, and the barriers to new, superior providers entering ought to be non-existent, and everyone ought to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Now, what I'd like to see is an analysis of how the state is going to ensure that schools can fail fast, and yet ensure that every child can get a place at a school.

I'd also like to see an analysis of how competition will work when schools are not charging for places, and cannot accumulate and distribute profits. As a thumbnail sketch of how this might work, consider that the state will pay £n/per child to any school that the parents direct, and that recipient schools are banned from charging parents (or even that they are not, but most parents are unwilling to pay such a supplement). In order to charge more, the school must find some sponsor organisation that will pay some supplement for each child, let us say £m. Now, parents will try to choose the best school; the best schools are those who tend to be those which can most money the most effectively on each child. This means tending to select children who are as similar as possible in some respect that they can achieve cost savings, and it means getting the most money. So, the best schools will be those who can attract the best sponsors, and who can select their pupils and tailor their curriculum. So, specialist academies are likely to be best. But how will they get those sponsors? Firstly, by targetting some academic specialism which has money sloshing around for it, and secondly by finding non-academic sponsors, which means kowtowing to the special whims of those sponsors, which are likely to be political or religious in nature. Note that all of these elements tend to induce positive-feedback with the best schools attracting the most pupils, and hence the most money.

Against this grim scenario one can posit that more educational charities will spring up, with more of the national wealth being channeled to education through charity. If the amount of purely educational money available for schools vastly exceeds the crackpot funds, and the educational charities refuse to disburse meny to the recipients of crackpot money, then perhaps those with political goals will not take control of schooling. More interesting in this benign scenario is the question of curriculum and teaching quality monitoring, which has to be the real justification for any privatised solution to schooling, as the state can divert resources to schooling by fiat (taxation). So, if the state is really serious about a market-based solution, it ought to ensure that there are sufficient educational chairties by actually endowing some, probably out of the resources of LEAs, and making part or all of the payments for each child through these institutions, so that they can actually target resources where they are needed for the moment. Oh, and as a key component of any market system, they should also attempt to differentiate between non-substitutable goods by actually assessing how much they ought to pay for each place at each school individually. Which would mean some sort of state bureaucracy that assesses schooling, even on the basis of rational metrics that measure whether they are behaving as the state believes they ought. Which would put us back where we are now, with a duty on the state to not shift responsibility onto someone else.