Sunday, May 15, 2005

Heretical thoughts on education

We have been promised a policy review. And Ming the Merciless says:
"What Charles Kennedy wants is a policy review which begins without any precondition or presupposition."
You can take that as a sign that the Liberal Democrat leadership was disappointed with the election result. If they had been pleased with it they would be boasting that our policies had been vindicated rather than seeking to bury them.

Anyway, let's have some new thinking on education. Our policy in the election, if I understood it right, was that by some modest reordering of government spending we could guarantee that every school would be of a high standard and that parents would be willing to give up any right to choose which school their children attended as a result.

My old friend Lord Bonkers satirised this policy as follows:

Tuesday. Still at Westminster, I attend a meeting of the parliamentary party and demonstrate the Bonkers Patent Abdominal Protector for Canvassers. It is based upon the box worn by batsmen, but has been adapted to include both a jute bag that will carry an entire Focus round and a flask that takes a couple of generous measures of Auld Johnston (that most prized of Highland malts). Asked why I am promoting it at this juncture, I reply that, if we seriously intend sending our chaps out on to the streets of such towns as Guildford, Richmond and Cheltenham to tell the voters we shall allow them no choice in which school their children attend, they will need all the protection they can get. The chairman hurries us on to next business, but I am gratified by the number of MPs who come up afterwards to place firm orders.

I do not think the mention of Guildford was prophetic, as the policy was hardly mentioned in the campaign. But it is clear that the Liberal Democrats badly need to so some new thinking on education.

As a starting point, let me suggest this piece by Madsen Pirie on the Adam Smith Institute's blog:

Quality state schools, including grammar and selective schools, are heavily over-subscribed. Determined middle class parents move into their catchment areas, and some lie about their child's address. Many private schools are over-subscribed, too, with their high price indicating an excess of demand over supply. The only places over-supplied are in low quality comprehensive schools with dismal educational records.

We need more good quality schools. Successful policy should allow and encourage new schools to start up, minimizing the regulatory obstacles and ending local authority obstruction. Groups of parents, teachers and businessmen should be able to start new schools rapidly, concentrating on good teaching and correct attitudes. Instead of attending in minute detail to the inputs, there should be a presumption in favour of new schools, with emphasis on their output.

It took a civil servant to think up the 'surplus places' rule. It prevented new schools in areas where there were unfilled places in existing schools, which is roughly equivalent to banning a new restaurant when there are empty tables at worthless ones in the same area.

This sort of thinking is miles from where the party is at the moment. But these are the sort of ideas we need to explore if we are to offer something more than a variety of state socialism or be more than the political mouthpiece for the adolescent nihilism of the teachers' unions.

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