Alex Massie

“Socialism in one clause”?

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Peter Hoskin is right to be suspicious of the government's latest ploy: mandating that all public bodies have a statutory duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor. As you might expect Polly Toynbee is tickled a deepish shade of red by the notion. Nonetheless, consider this snippet from her column today:

Poor children might need to have much more spent on their education per head than the better-off do. Sure Start toddlers might need more funds than older children. It might mean local lotteries to see that all children get equal access to the best schools.

It's a myth, of course, that simply ploughing more money into schools necessarily improves them and I suspect that Toynbee envisions some centralised system whereby bureaucrats allocate funds based on some incomprehensible and inflexible formula. Still, it wouldn't have to be that way: giving head-teachers greater license to spend their school budget as they see fit (and thus freeing them from LEAs) would be a good start. If that means they want to spend more on salaries to attract better teachers then fine.

More significantly, Toynbee seems to be endorsing greater school choice. That's a good thing. The current system of "slection by house price" is inequitable for sure. But the best way to organise "local lotteries" for access to the best schools is to permit all parents to choose the school they want their kids to attend. Parents should decide what is the best school for their kids, not civil servants. A lottery would only be necessary if and when a school is over-subscribed. If I recall correctly, New Zealand's school choice system results in more than 75% of parents getting their kids into their preferred school. There's no great reason to suppose some similarly happy outcome could be achieved in Britain. School choice incentivises parents to be more involved with their kids' education and, as we know, parental involvement is one of the most important factors in determining educational success.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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