Alex Massie

Choice Matters: Education Division

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There are some policy ideas that one supports while recognising that they may come with costs, in some cases considerable costs (eg, drug legalisation, open borders, etc etc.) But I confess that I remain mystified by the ferocity with which so many people oppose something as seemingly uncontroversial as school choice.

Because it's not as though school choice doesn't already exist. It does. But you have to be reasonably well-off to either pay for your kids to be educated in the private sector or pay the mortgage premium to move house to be inside a leading state school's catchment area. Neither of these strike me as illegitimate choices (though logically opponents of school choice ought, I think, to oppose them too) and the entire point of the pro-school choice movement is to extend the privilege of choice to those families who do not currently have the means to choose their kids' school themselves. This seems such a basic point to me that I must, I suppose, be missing something given how frequently opponents of school choice accuse its proponents of wanting to help the rich at the expense of the poor.

So, for example, in the comments to this post Ben writes: "The contortions that soi-disant libertarianism needs to go to in order to justify taking money from 9-5 workers and giving it to priests, mullahs and other oogedy-boogedy merchants for the pretended benefit of the children of the rich would be comical if I didn't think they were actually serious." This, alas, is incoherent drivel, since we're talking about empowering, not disempowering "ordinary" people. There's no robbery or illegitimate transfer of funds in a voucher programme. On the contrary, it's a means of "giving" money to "9-5 workers".

Then there's Seb, who says: "Education is like health care. The government's task is not to offer a 'choice'. This would imply that parents, poor or not, would be able to choose between different styles of education but between effective and ineffective schools. What do parents know or care about schools?" Just as much, if not more, than bureaucrats I should warrant. Seb's position suggests that the government should also allocate university places. After all, why offer a "choice" since teenagers can't be expected to have a clue about what might suit them? Or, as another commenter pointed out, what do customers know about cars? Why give them a choice? Indeed, what do consumers know about anything? Does Seb believe that middle-class parents who already exercise school choice are unable to differentiate between schools and choose the one that seems most likely to suit their child?

Finally, Ally chips in with this: "The competition that results from a voucher system incentivises schools...by forcing schools to respond to parents demands or risk closing down." Now that's the best argument against voucher schemes I've ever heard. Well done. Whilst the quality of teaching needs to be rigorously assessed and improved, pandering to the whims of parents is exactly what we should avoid." Because, again, the customer can't possibly be expected to know what they want, can they? And so, instead, any moves away from a one-size fits all approach must be fiercely resisted. You can have any fruit you like, so long as it's an apple. This is madness.

Yet, as it happens, we can see what happens when you have competition between schools: just look at the private sector where, especially in large cities, all manner of educational flowers bloom. Happily this also drives up standards while also incentivising schools to develop and accentuate their own unique "selling point" (just as universities do, incidentally). For instance, my own expensive Perthshire penitentiary is in many ways a much better school now than it was when I attended it - in large part because market forces compelled it to improve the range of services it offered or face the unwelcome prospect of closing down.

To repeat, Sweden and the Netherlands and New Zealand have all introduced school choice reforms. In each instance these have proved so successful that, though controversial when first introduced, there's little demand for the reforms to be rolled back. If David Cameron really can kneecap the LEA's and set schools, parents and pupils free then that's likely to be the greatest achievement of his ministry. Again, I must, I suppose be missing something since I don't understand why freeing people to make their own choices is such a terrifying, resist-to-the-last-man prospect. Freedom from state control and freedom to choose your own way - that's a win-win situation.

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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