Alex Massie

Logic, School Choice, Milton Friedman... And Polly Toynbee

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Unsurprisingly, Brother Nelson has a useful primer on some of the latest skirmishing over the Tories plans to introduce (in England) Swedish-style education reform. I'm also pleased he highlighted this Polly Toynbee column since, while she tries to claim, erroneously, that Sweden's Free Schools are merely middle-class playthings she ends up by arguing that:

The only countries where children succeed according to talent and perseverance more than social class are the most equal societies: the Nordics, Japan, the Netherlands. Whatever the school system, Britain's dysfunctional inequality will usually trump teaching.

Japan is a case unto itself for all sorts of reasons, but it's worth observing that two of her other favourite countries - Sweden and the Netherlands - are societies that have embraced the logic and power of school choice. And since everyone agrees that education is vital, one might think that the school policies pursued in Sweden and the Netherlands have played some part in making them the kind of society that Mrs Toynbee so admires. Simple, really. Unless, of course, you're Polly Toynbee.

Previous items on school choice - in the UK and the US - here, here and here. Also: it's disheartening to think that this isn't a new argument at all: Milton Friedman made the case for school vouchers  - that is, school choice - as far back as 1955. Friedman argued that:

"Government," wrote Friedman, "preferably local governmental units, would give each child, through his parents, a specified sum to be used solely in paying for his general education; the parents would be free to spend this sum at a school of their own choice, provided it met certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit. Such schools would be conducted under a variety of auspices: by private enterprises operated for profit, nonprofit institutions established by private endowment, religious bodies, and some even by governmental units."

Among other things, Friedman prophesied that an education system based on vouchers would minimize inefficient government spending while giving low-income Americans, who are traditionally stuck in the very worst public schools, a better chance at receiving a good education. Vouchers "would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy." That was true then and it's still true now. The Conservatives' policy is a good start but, as Fraser points out, there are many, many obstacles to be overcome before schools, parents and children are given the freedom to choose and to learn.

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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Topics in this articleSocietyeducationtories