July 06, 2004
"Let them move house!"

Here are two Telegraph pieces from yesterday about school choice, the first a news story, and the second a comment piece by Rachel Sylvester. Nice Gerald Ratner comparison:

Shortly before I went on maternity leave at the end of last year, I had lunch with a minister who has impeccably Blairite credentials. The conversation turned, naturally, to schools in my area of London - Hackney. Diane Abbott, the local MP, had just said that the secondary schools there were so bad that she felt obliged, despite all her Left-wing principles, to educate her son privately.

What would the minister advise me to do, I asked, if my soon-to-be-born child were about to reach his 11th birthday? 'Oh,' he replied without a second thought, 'you'd have to move.'

Another minister told a friend of mine that if he really wanted the best education for his children, he would have to send them to private schools, while a third member of the Government advised that the only solution for parents with children in state schools was to spend a fortune on private tuition.
Seven years after Tony Blair declared 'education, education, education' to be his top priority, ministers still sound like Gerald Ratner when discussing Britain's secondary schools. Alastair Campbell may have called for the end of the 'bog standard comprehensive', but most ministers talk as if the schools are just 'crap'.

NiceHouse.jpgThey behave as if they are, too. The Prime Minister had to send his sons half-way across London to find what he considered to be a decent school - the Roman Catholic Oratory - while other members of the Cabinet - Lord Falconer and Paul Boateng - educate their children privately. Several senior ministers have got round the problem by buying an expensive house in the catchment area of a good state school.

Of course, politicians have every right to do what they believe to be best for their sons and daughters. The problem is that most people cannot afford to do the same. In Hackney, 17 per cent of parents send their children to private schools, but what about the rest, many of whom live on council estates and are struggling to make ends meet?

And not everyone has the money to move house to be near a good state school when, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, property prices are 12 per cent higher in the catchment areas of the best. 'Let them move house' is rather like Marie Antoinette declaring 'let them eat cake'.

Gratuitous picture there of a nice house, details of which are viewable here. And if everyone did "have the money", the price of the houses near the best schools would rocket upwards still more.

Happily a cross-party consensus – a cross-front-bench consensus anyway – does seem to be emerging, disguised by the need both parties feel to continue insulting one another. "Why don't they support us?" "They aren't doing enough!" Blah blah blah.

The key to it is the right of popular schools to expand and to profit from that expansion, and the key policy to let that happen is for the money to be in the hands of parents – and via parents in the hands of schools - rather than of local education authorities. In practice this means, to borrow a phrase much used by these guys – education vouchers but not called that. If parents are allowed to choose a school, and if the school is allowed to expand to accept all that money from the parents who want it, then the good schools will take over the universe and the bad ones will disappear. Well, do you have a better idea?

Not that this (or any) political policy will work quickly enough if you are a politician who is shopping around for a good education, now, for your child.

But at least this policy might work eventually.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: School choice