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September 26, 2003
Educational selection – why I don't like the "hypocrisy" argument in favour of it

Stephen Pollard has a piece up at his blog called Should Schools Select?, originally in the September issue of Fabian Review. He says yes, as do I if they want to. I choose the company I keep. Why shouldn't schools?

After trashing the notion that there is any meaningful difference between selecting by aptitude and selecting by ability, he goes on to denounce those who favour non-selection, but who then buy educational advancements for their own children:

The real basis of opposition to selection is, of course, social engineering: the belief that only by forcing all children, irrespective of their individual abilities – aptitudes, if we must – to be educated together can we build a truly equal society. As Crosland put it in 1956: education should be seen "as a serious alternative to nationalisation in promoting a more just and efficient society."

It hasn’t worked. And we all know it. The difference is that some are prepared to say so, whilst others come up with specious arguments to deflect criticism of their own personal response to this failure. 'You know how much we believe in comprehensives, but there’s no way we’re sending little Jonny to that dump round the corner'; in other words, 'It’s fine for the rest of the riff-raff, but not for our kids'. Or 'Amanda is such a clever child but she just isn’t stretched at the moment, so we’re paying her to have extra tuition'; in other words, 'We've got money, and we’re going to spend it how we like, thank you very much'.

We have selection now. But it is based on the cheque book: if you can afford to send your child to a private school, to pay for extra lessons, or to move into the catchment area of a decent state school, then you are fine. If however you are one of the majority, you take what you are given.

It's a familiar argument. Hypocrisy. They preach one thing, but they practise another.

As I say, I agree with Pollard about selection being a fine thing, for all of us. But I've never liked this particular way of arguing for it. After all, I oppose the entire principle of nationalised industries, but I do not hesitate to make use of their services, often heavily subsidised, if it suits me. Was I a hypocrite when I bought a ticket on the old nationalised British Rail? From time to time the BBC pays me to appear on one of their talking head shows on the radio. I cash whatever cheque they send me, if they do, every time. Inconsistent? A proof that I really believe in nationalised broadcasting?

No. Just proof that the world is not as I would like it to be. I have my opinions about how the world ought to be, which I will happily tell you about, on whatever platform the world as it is offers me that is congenial.

So, going back to those educational egalitarians who also pay for Amanda's extra tuition, they believe in a certain sort of educationally equal world. But they don't have the world they want, and instead must do their best for their children in the educational world as it is. In their ideal equal-land, there'd be no nonsense about catchment areas and private schools to allow the rich to escape from the regular system, and all school would be equally splendid. In that world, they'll play by the egalitarian book and let Amanda take her chances with all the other, equally lucky children.

My quarrel with all that is not that they do their best for Amanda. It is that their plan for educational equality is a giant articulated lorry-load of evil smelling cow dung. If all their instructions were followed education wouldn't at all be equally good for everyone, it would unequally dreadful, as is the case with all real world attempts to do equality, in any way. There is no utopia of equal excellence. It's impossible. The real world choice is between a free market, which is unequally excellent, and an unfree system which is unequally ghastly, and that's it. That's my disagreement with these people, not the fact that they do their best for their children.

Quite to the contrary. To me there is nothing personally creepy about edu-egalitarians who buy advantages for their own kids. (I just think they're flat wrong about edu-egalitarianism.) But there is something seriously creepy about parents who are not only edu-egalitarian, but who insist on sacrificing their children on the altar of their own opinions, against those children's best interests. If they have the money, and son Tarquin has no aptitude for survival at the local comprehensive and would plainly do better at a posher sort of place which is happy to take him at a specially reduced price because Tarquin is so clever, and where Tarquin would fit in very well and which he is eager to attend … if all that, who but total shit parents would turn their backs on what would clearly be best for their own child, just because of their damn fool political opinions? That really would be creepy.

There are many worse things in the world than hypocrisy, but these edu-egalitarians whom Pollard lays into aren't even hypocrites. They are just refraining from being knowingly ghastly to their own children merely because they are unknowingly recommending ghastliness for the rest of us. Their crime is stupidity and cruelty, to us. Don't ask them to add the crime of abusing their own children to the rap sheet.

If they are knowingly recommending ghastliness to the rest of us, just so that Tarquin can get ahead and lord it over us, then that's different. But to prove that charge you'd need a quite different sort of evidence to merely them looking out for Tarquin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 AM
Category: Selection

Heartly agree agree, Brian. Don't think it's knowing, though. Rather, it's the shimmering and deceptive allure of egalitarianism. This is the left's religion, all that remains after classical marxism died. In education that means that the equality of human potential demands the blanket delivery of knowledge. Of course, we humans aren't equal. Blanket delivery is a synonym for inflexibility and waste, which is what always derives from state provision. A functioning educational system would take as its starting point: to each according to his talents. It's a matter of investment, and that's a matter of parental choice.

The left, though, will never renounce its faith, never give up on its chief, guiding fantasy. The failings of their real-life system - and the real lives failed - never impinge upon their thinking, except to commend the application of more "resources", more wasteful remedialism, more Guardian Society bureaucrats, more social engineers. One would like to ejoin that things can only get better. But there is every chance that, educationally, they are going to get a lot worse.

Comment by: Guessedworker on September 26, 2003 04:36 PM


Comment by: Patrick Crozier on September 29, 2003 07:45 PM

Amen to that Brian. A great post.

Comment by: William on October 5, 2003 02:45 AM
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