CHOICE AND WHY IT MATTERS
No-one should be misled by the argument that either parents choose schools or schools choose pupils. It is not an either/or situation. Parents should be offered the widest possible choice of school and any good school must be able to choose (or select) its pupils, simply because child-rearing and school-level education should be a joint enterprise by parents and teachers. They need to work together. Also, of course, whenever any school has more applicants than places, it is bound to operate some form of selection.
Moreover, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights allows parents the 'prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.' The European Convention on Human Rights is more explicit: it gives parents the right to have their children educated 'in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.' Parliament incorporated the European Convention into British law in the Human Rights Act 1998, where it is agreed that: '…the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.'
Although our state educational establishment enthusiastically promotes children's rights, it completely ignores parental rights. But choice of school, and what is taught in school, is a key ingredient of a healthy and successful society. Totalitarian governments in pre-war Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union took advantage of the fact that schools and education can be used to mould future societies. That should not be allowed to happen here.
Common sense suggests that youngsters (and adults) differ. Some are very academic, some are practical and most are probably a mixture of the two. The knowledge, skills and aptitudes required of a surgeon, a lawyer, a plumber, an electrician or a soldier are very different, but all are important in a successful society. An effective education system should provide different types of school to cater for different educational philosophies, different faith groups, and different aptitudes and abilities. Ideally, schools should be compelled to state which philosophy or ethos they follow in their prospectuses.
For philosophical, religious or other reasons, parents and their children have priorities that vary: some want, and are well-served by, a school whose priorities include competition and high academic standards. Others seek a school where the ethos may be less academic, but more practical. Others may seek a more 'all-round' school catering for a wide range of abilities and aptitudes. A benevolent system, run for the benefit of consumers rather than producers, should provide all these choices. And, of course, there are huge variations in performance, standards and ethos between different schools of the same type. Naturally, parents want the best for their child and, quite simply, there are not enough good schools.
On the other hand, many politicians and bureaucrats hate genuine diversity. For ideological and administrative reasons, most civil servants running national and local government prefer to deny parental choice and force all young people into the nearest 'common' school. Or alternatively, to compel every school to take a 'balanced' or 'banded' intake comprising equal proportions of each ability-range – in the mistaken belief that equal intakes will ensure equal outcomes. As bureaucrats have increasingly become the public's masters instead of its servants, the system has become increasingly uniform.
So, too, has the curriculum, which is now almost entirely regulated by the state. Regardless of individual aptitudes or choice, state schools have fundamentally changed their purpose over recent years. The primary purpose of state education has shifted from transferring a body of knowledge and cultural values from one generation to the next, to changing attitudes and values to produce a new society. Choice over the 'affective' (as against cognitive) areas of the curriculum is increasingly denied: Religious Education, for example, allows for parents to withdraw their child, when they disagree with the values being taught. With the exception of some sex education, Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education (PSHCE) allows no such choice.
Even the choice of subjects and qualifications is now being denied. Quite rightly, there are now more vocational options in the curriculum. But highly academic pupils are being forced (and bribed) to spend their valuable school time on vocational subjects at the expense of important academic subjects. Why should an intermediate pass in 1 vocational GCSE subject be worth up to 4 academic GCSEs at grade A*-C?
In most other areas of life, consumers are being offered more, not less, choice. But in an education system provided by the state, politicians and bureaucrats continually resist genuine choice, preferring, instead to claim that improving standards, evidenced by constantly 'improving' national test and exam results, remove the need for choice. They regard any form of competition, which might produce invidious comparisons, as a danger – hence recent attempts to remove competition from the system and enforce what Fred Naylor has described as 'compulsory social mixing', regardless of the wishes or the rights of parents (see Note below).
It should also be noted that so-called specialist schools are only a small step in the direction of genuine choice. When almost any type of specialist school is permitted except an academic specialist school, it is clear that the programme is designed to provide the illusion of choice, not the reality. Why is it anathema to so many politicians and bureaucrats that England's 164 remaining grammar schools are so popular? Every year, many of these schools get 10 or more applicants to take their voluntary 11-plus exam for each available place. So while parents and their children are willing to face fierce competition for places in state grammar schools, knowing that such places offer access to the highest possible standards, 2 out of 3 of the major political parties would like to abolish these schools altogether. (Applicants for places in some of the better primary and comprehensive schools may face daunting odds too.)
Parents also know that most of the worst performing Local Education Authorities are in totally comprehensive areas, where there is no competition from grammar schools or any other type of school. Indeed, comparison of results between LEAs with selective schools and those that are wholly comprehensive shows that in the former, the proportion of youngsters achieving GCSE grade A*-A is twice that of youngsters in totally comprehensive areas.
Parents and families who want the best possible academic education for their child and are willing to compete for it have the right to be offered that choice, if their child is suitable and can qualify. Without such competitive individuals and families, the nation and its economy will sink into mediocrity. Families that prefer a more co-operative, less competitive education should also have that choice. But notice how frequently politicians and educational bureaucrats talk about 'unacceptable gaps in performance between schools'. The fact that they emphasise 'narrowing the gap', rather than concentrating on improving the performance of under-achieving schools and pupils, shows that their intention is to level down, not to level up. Attacks on grammar schools in Gloucester and Northern Ireland are not just attacks on individual schools – they are attacks on standards and competition. If successful, they will adversely effect every family in the land.
Nor should anyone be misled by ideologically motivated attacks on independent schools or their charitable status – these attacks, too, are aimed at parental choice. Whatever other benefits they may or may not bestow on their fee-paying clientele, independent schools provide two invaluable services to the community at large: a) they substantially reduce the burden on taxpayers and the state; and b) they offer competition to, and comparison with, the state system.
The politicians and bureaucrats who control state education must be compelled to enhance parental choice and not to undermine it. A wide choice of schools may not be practicable in rural areas. But in all other circumstances, the state has a statutory duty to offer parents the choice of selective or comprehensive schools, single-sex or co-educational schools, faith schools or secular schools, traditional schools or progressive schools. Without such choices – and competition between schools and between school systems – standards in the state system will continue to deteriorate.
* Note: For a disturbing example of politicians' hostility to parental choice see Secondary Education: School Admissions, House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, The Stationery Office, July 2004.
/Nick Seaton, Campaign for Real Education /July 2004