Saturday, May 19, 2007

School choice and the grammar school debate

I finally got my opinion of the schools debate clear in my own head last night on 18 Doughty Street.

Firstly, what are our objectives? I think the right-wing has to be focussed more on school choice than on grammars per se. In a free education system where parents can choose the education of their children some might choose grammar schools, others would prefer well run, streamed schools. Many children with different requirements or in areas with different challenges might choose entirely different models of education. The idea that one solution, imposed from the centre, can be the right way to run something like education which is so complex and varied and requires so much intangible information to truly understand the correct approach in any given case seems fundamentally weak.

Second, how do we get there? Do we take a radical position on education reform and hope that either it proves popular and is enacted or it slips under the radar in the general electoral melee and is enacted anyway or do we try something moderate?

A radical position would involve offering close to complete school choice right away with the ability of parents to top-up their voucher and allowing voucher schools to select based on ability. The advantages of a radical position are that we can move faster and make more of a difference more quickly. Also, it may well be that people are sufficiently frustrated with education results that they'll embrace radical change.

A more moderate approach would involve a steady reduction of state control in the education market. It might start with academy style greater freedoms for state schools. It might then make it easier for civil society to open its own schools through a heavily restricted voucher, as exists in Sweden. After that you will have a broad base of parents many of whom would like to spend a little extra on their children and it would clearly be possible as their school is largely independent. The logic for allowing them to top-up with some fees becomes strong. Finally, the arguments against allowing selection based on ability would be weakened when it became clear that it wasn't such a monolithic decision thanks to huge variety in the education market.

The advantages of a moderate approach are that a steady ratcheting of school freedoms might be less likely to provoke a political response and be reversed. It also probably plays better with an electorate distrustful of radicalism.

The final question is what Willetts was actually offering in his speech. Was his central message an abandonment of grammar schools? This has certainly been the focus in the media but didn't seem to be the main content of Willetts' speech. After all, Cameron had already ruled out a return to grammar schools in the immediate future. Willetts didn't even spend a lot of time discussing grammar schools.

Burning our money made a very sensible case that the focus of this speech was on decontaminating the case for school choice. If Willetts can get the Hefferites sufficiently wound up then whatever education policy the Tories finally settle on will be treated as moderate. Perhaps they'll only go as far as academies. Nothing particularly wrong with academies but I think even a moderate approach to building school choice should be more ambitious. Hopefully, they're clearing the way for something more ambitious. That is a very credible approach to introducing school choice.


Vino S said...

Surely the grammar school debate is _quite separate_ from parental choice.

Grammar schools _choose_ the pupils - not vice versa.

james higham said...

...Do we take a radical position on education reform...

I fear that "we" doesn't come into this debate.

Gracchi said...

Matt means the Conservative Party.

Who else is involved James and how are they involved?

Matthew Sinclair said...

I meant the 'right-wing movement'.

edmund said...

usualy grammar schools in practice allow popel some choice-because they can apply to more than one (and perhaps even for secondary modern) rathe than just get a better school on the value of their house, vilno-but your point is a good one

very good post- i bascial y entirely agree