The claim may be slightly exaggerated... Yet, just a few days after i commented on the need for a debate over the mechanism of choice in public services, Chris Huhne has made the first soundings on the issue. I can't find the links at present, but several papers were reporting that Huhne was warning against embracing the choice and competition agenda that both the Conservatives and Labour have relentlessly pursued over recent years. I am delighted that this issue has been raised so early on in the leadership campaign; in my view there exists no more important debate in domestic politics today. I fervently believe that New Labour's decade long experiment with this agenda has had a damaging, fractious impact on our public services, serving only to entrench a two tier system that leaves many with a 2nd class education or substandard local hospital. Consequently I view it as our duty as Liberal Democrats to have an upfront debate on this topic during and beyond the leadership election. My focus today will be upon education.
It is important to note that when i make such grandiose claims about the state of our education system, i do not do so without a degree of supporting evidence. Just days ago the Guardian ran yet another story on the lack of upward social mobility in the UK ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,,2195680,00.html). Obviously, social mobility is intrinsically linked to education and a static level of social mobility is a sad reflection of an education system which is clearly not succeeding in boosting the prospects of children from the least advantaged backgrounds. I am convinced that the 'choice' agenda for secondary education has been the central reason for the governmnent's failure.
Diagnosing the Problem
-Parents are provided with a 'choice' of secondary schools to subscribe to. Very often, there are 1or 2 outstanding schools in the area (as is the case in my own home town of Bishop's Stortford) which are vastly oversubscribed. The third or fourth 'choice' schools are invariably far less succesful and attract far fewer subscribers. Yet, because of oversubscription it almost becomes a lottery as to where children finally end up. The students who ultimately attend their 3rd or 4th choice institution are then condemned to an inferior standard of education simply because they were 'unlucky' in the lottery.
I used the qualification of saying it was 'almost' a lottery as to how places are decided, because one of the biggest injustices to the current system is that it is open to manipulation by some families and not others. Parents universally realise that their son or daughter is more likely to get a place in a certain school if they move closer to the catchment area. Yet, self evidently, some families can afford to move, whereas others will not be able to do likewise. Nobody would begrudge these parents doing the best thing by thier child, yet it surely it is a great injustice that this is an advantage that is denied to the poorest families. An injustice that has greatly hampered the prospects of many of Britain's least advantaged children and is surely a major contributory factor to our stalling level of upward social mobility.
The Solution ?
An obvious practical solution is not forthcoming, but i am completely convinced that simply maintaining the status quo and offering parents this 'false choice' between secondary schools is not a viable policy. I would tentatively support an open lottery for places as a stopgap measure. At least this would be an honest lottery, that would not disadvantage families who cannot afford to move closer to the most succesful institutions.
Beyond that, i believe we need to display a steadfast commitment to being more pro-active in boosting the performance of the lowest achieving schools. Perhaps by contemplating ideas such as offering higher wages for teachers willing to work in less succesful schools.
I keenly await to hear what Clegg and Huhne say on the issue- and any other comments people have on this article...