June 27, 2004

Matthew d'Ancona, in today's Sunday Telegraph, made me smile with this:

A minister close to Mr Blair once asked me what would be a good objective for the Prime Minister to announce in a forthcoming conference speech. I said that he should commit his Government to reducing the percentage of parents who send their children to private schools - not by penalising those schools in any way, but by making the state sector so attractive that parents no longer felt the need to look elsewhere. The minister, normally garrulous and Tiggerish, went strangely quiet.

Much is made, by people in my corner the political opinion map, of the phrase "schoolsandhospitals". But d'Ancona ruminates on the differences between schools on the one hand, and hospitals on the other – between education and health. In particular, he speculates that the Conservatives, who still get nowhere on the health issue and just bleat that they will spend more money, might actually make some headway with their complaints about and policies for education.

Another reason why health is different from education is that the kind of clever, young, opinionated people who make the running in political policy creation are usually right in the middle of that time in their lives when they are least concerned, personally, about health. They are, in short, very healthy. They have no recent experience of serious healthcare, and they face no immediate prospect of it. They have hardly any sustained experience of - or, yet, much fear of - what it is actually like to spend a year in a hospital, or to have to combine staying alive with suffering from a chronic disease. They may learn from some survey or other that "people" care very much about the NHS, but this is a truth they most of them must accept at second hand.

By contrast, these clever young persons have just emerged from a couple of decades of the best that our nation's educational system can offer. They are good at this, and that is pretty much all they are good at. No wonder they take it so seriously, and want everyone else to, and are full of opinions about how to improve it, even if the teachers dread these plans.

However, voters are different, and so are many of the more senior politicians who seek their votes. Voters are old. Voters have young children. Voters have dispiriting jobs, which they seek medical excuses to avoid every now and again. So voters know about health and care about health even if policy wonks care less about it.

But second, and probably more important, is the fact that many millions of voters must surely feel, and with some justification, that they could teach their children, and other people's children, just as effectively as the actual teachers do. They could be wrong, but that is surely how they feel. They all have years of experience of the most important thing that goes on in schools, which is the teaching that goes on in classrooms, and the only reason they don't then teach for a living themselves is that they've more lucrative and interesting ways of spending their lives. If all state school teachers disappeared to the West Indies for permanent holidays, they would rapidly be replaced, by the electorate, and in a way that might very possibly be an improvement. This may not be true, but lots of people surely think this.

But your average voter would have no such confidence if he was suddenly asked to perform a hip replacement. Medicine involves real knowledge, real training. Teaching? Anyone can do that.

So, when people think about health, they think: could be far worse. Don't mess with it.

When they think about education, they think: could do far better. Give it a good kicking. What's the worst that could happen?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:08 PM
Category: Politics