Alex Massie

Rod Liddle’s Education Policy is Antediluvian Piffle

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Rod Liddle reminds us that he's no liberal. This will not, I imagine, trouble him unduly. Nevertheless, his disaste for the middle-classes gets the better of him when he writes:

The mantra of consumer choice was co-opted by New Labour and applied to all sorts of perfectly unsuitable things. Children should go to their nearest comprehensive school, without right of appeal. If that school is failing then the local education authority, or the government, should take steps to ensure it no longer fails, by either sacking the headteacher, or spending more money on it. Middle class monkeys will still shift around from area to area looking for schools which they believe are “good”; but the scrapping of league tables – which, like all artificially imposed targets have become an end in themselves rather than a means – would lessen that likelihood. There should be no genuflection in the direction of local communities (ie no hijabs, no burqas, no Sikhs with knives, no chavs with earrings). They should be both literally and metaphorically uniform, offering an equal education to all kids from all backgrounds, with no risk of schools being defined as “failing”. As I say, if Ofsted and the government believe schools are failing they should do something about it, quickly.

“Choice” is still considered an untrammeled benefit to all. But there are plenty of areas where choice makes us, on the whole, less happy, and schools are one of them. Another is hospital treatment. There are certain times when the state can make our decisions for us, and when we would wish it to do so.

Really? Perhaps Brother Liddle would care to tell us what other times we should hand control of our lives over to the state. There remains, in many quarters, a baffling determination to pretend that truths we experience in other areas of our lives - namely that, most often and on balance, competition and choice increase standards and accountability - somehow do not apply to health and education. Presumably because health and education are, in some mysterious, never explained way, different.

But how are they different? Rod does't even bother to try and tell us. And why, if choice is so bad for us, is it ok for people to choose the university they attend, the airline they want to use, the car they buy, even where they want to live and the house they buy? Why not let the state make those decisions for us too? After all, one airline or one car is much like another, innit?

School league tables may be "artificially imposed targets" but there's little evidence, I think, that scrapping them lessens the likelihood that "middle class monkeys" (and really, what's wrong with being middle-class? By any reasonable standard more of us are middle-class these days than has ever been the case) will "shift around from area to area" to enroll their kids in what they consider the "best" schools. If there were then Scottish parents wouldn't move house to be in a given schools' catchment area. But they, or at least some of them, do move in just this fashion.

And if choice - that is free and functioning markets - really makes no difference then why does competition serve to drive up standards in the private sector? Or does Rod deny that this is the case? It's not just a question of cash: it's that private schools must react to consumer demand while the state sector, too often, remains in thrall to producer interests. The Tories, in England, seem determined to offer a stark lesson here: offering consumers power in education while handing control of the NHS over to the BMA. We shall see which works better. (Never mind, for now, the spectacular intellectual incoherence of the contrast in approach to these twin public services.)

For that matter, one of the arguments for choice is that the state has actually proved very bad at identifying failing schools, let alone "doing something about it". The market, however, is not so kind. We know this because we've seen bad private schools close, forcing pupils to move to better-performing schools. On balance this is a good, if painful, thing.

No-one, I think, believes that all parents will always take decisions that are in the best interests of their children. But it is perverse to think that the solution to that problem is to curtail everyone's freedom and coerce families into accepting whatever the state deigns to give them. To then argue that they should be grateful for receiving the meagre fruits of their taxes is to add insult to injury. Dislike the middle-class all you like, but let's not pretend that a determination to clip their wings won't also hit the aspirational working-classes.

No system is perfect, but Rod's preferences - throw more money at it! - are a recipe for continued failure. On the whole, choice is your friend, not your enemy.

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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