April 11, 2004
Faking the market

The problem is that people move to houses in the catchment areas of good schools. Lots of parents want their kids to go to a few good, but oversubscribed, schools. An Conservative Education Spokesman Tim Yeo is floundering.

Mr Yeo's suggestion that schools could be prevented from using proximity to a school to determine places would mean that popular schools would have to find other ways to choose from hundreds of families seeking a few dozen places.

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, suggested that headteachers would have to "pull names out of a hat". Mr McAvoy said that it raised the prospect of people who had homes beside good schools having to drive their children to less good schools that could be miles away.

"Parents are not going to like that," said Mr McAvoy.

And in particular middle class parents who have taken out huge mortgages to get near to a desirable school are unlikely to be keen on such a scheme.

But Mr Yeo appeared to contradict what would be a highly controversial proposal by also saying that schools would be allowed to decide their own admission rules.

That would mean schools being able to continue using distance from the school as grounds for admission - which would mean that better-off parents could still buy into catchment areas.
Mr Yeo emphasised that the pupil passport proposals were about expanding choice, particularly for families living in deprived areas.

"I want all parents to have the kind of choice which at present is only available to those who can afford to choose where they live," he said.

Not being fascinated by the pronouncements of politicians about education, I may have got this all wrong. But it seems to me that Yeo's policy will only work properly if popular schools are allowed to expand, and if it is also accepted that unpopular schools might close, if they persist in being unpopular. But since expansion takes time, any expansion plan is by its nature a risk, and the possibility of your school disappearing is also a risk. And why would the people in charge of schools take such risks unless there is the prospect of profit. For as long as these schools are run by people on fixed salaries that don't increase all that dramatically even if their school gets very popular, why would they take such risks? And if they wouldn't, then this means that there is this vast mob of parents chasing a fixed number of popular school places, and the unpopular schools stay in "business" (the inverted commas being because it isn't really business at all) simply so that there are enough places for everyone.. Which is pretty much the situation we have now. Yeo wants to fake some of the aspects of a free market, while omitting to include various other essential features. And since that would have daft consequences, he wants actually to restrict other seemingly market-like activity, such as schools deciding who they let in. Like I say, floundering.

Or am I missing something? It wouldn't surprise me a bit if I was. It's only politics and I do not give this my full attention.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Politics