Will choice fail education?

A little while ago I argued against the ban on smoking in pubs, though I’ve never smoked. Those who fear the risks of passive smoking can choose a no-smoking pub, I argued, while smokers should be hit by a new tax – a form of compulsory health insurance – that would factor costs to the taxpayer into the cigarette market.

Yet while the government’s chosen not to work with market forces on smoking, it is attempting to introduce competition to the education system. Bloggers4Labour notes that this idea has little support and takes a swipe at Labour purists of privileged educational background, who came to prominence in the 1940s and ’50s; boring! Jonathan Shipley’s assembled several anti-arguments, but they all seem to take their time getting to the point. I think they’re trying to say:

‘The choice isn’t straightforward and it requires more thought than some parents are willing or able to put in. Many kids will be failed by their parents and consequently failed by their school.’

Against that, government reckons enough parents must have the nous to avoid bad schools, render them unviable and force closure or take over by a successful neighbour. Provided failing parents form a small enough minority, bad schools will eventually die. In practice the buildings will remain and be occupied with something better. It’s hard to see how that process could otherwise be accelerated.

So I’m wavering. Living in London, I went to a school where the teachers went around in pairs. My chemistry teacher was mugged in a school corridor and many kids’ parents were feared. Yet my parents – blissfully unaware – had been given a choice and had thought long and hard about it. (As a kid, you think all schools are that way and say nothing.) Here all the parents had failed their children. When I was fifteen we moved to Wales, the nearest town had two schools and I was allocated to the worst. It was a revelation: you had to be very lazy or genuinely troubled not to make it to university. But given the choice, the parents would have abandoned that successful school, whose neighbour was believed to be just a tiny bit better.

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