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14 May 2007

The thinking: Needed: courage and ingenuity

Peter Wilby on why education remains the priority

By Peter Wilby

One effect of Gordon Brown’s impending move to No 10 is that we can utter the word “egalitarian” again. The prominent Brownite Ed Miliband, for example, uses it eight times in his 12-page essay for the latest publication from the Institute for Public Policy Research (Politics for a New Generation), even daring to refer to an “egalitarian project”.

If this is to be more than rhetoric to reinvigorate Labour activists, the Brownites need some hard strategic thinking. Anybody who has worked in the Treasury will know that trying to make 21st-century Britain more equal is like trying to push water uphill. Globalisation – and Britain, through financial services, depends highly on the most globalised industry of all – tends to make the distribution of income and wealth more unequal. The answer, according to standard new Labour thinking, is to boost the incomes of the toiling masses by giving them more marketable skills. Miliband doesn’t demur. “The starting point must be education,” he declares.

I will leave aside my scepticism as to whether this is indeed the solution. My concern here is whether a Brown government could design an education system that improves the performance of the bottom 40 per cent. For the past 25 years, governments have bet the house on parental choice and Labour, with academies, trust schools and so on, has multiplied the options available. In theory, “bad” schools, mostly in deprived areas, should be dying for lack of customers. But choice doesn’t work without slack in the system. Again, Treasury experience should tell Brownites that empty school places are expensive and wasteful.

So schools choose parents, not the other way round. Here the market does work as theory predicts, with schools excluding “bad” parents, or at least “bad” children, if they possibly can. The result is growing segregation – some racial, but most social – within the comprehensive system. Those children perceived as undesirable, for whatever reason, are clustered in “failing schools”, making the schools even less attractive, not least to teachers. Yet research suggests children from poor homes perform best if schooled with those from more affluent backgrounds. If schools were mixed socially and academically, the number of “bad” ones would plummet. For these reasons, Labour MPs insisted on strengthening the school admissions code in the latest Education Act.

Many devices by which schools excluded undesirable children were outlawed. But the code still allows selection by proximity, and richer parents pay premium prices for houses close to “good” schools.

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The new code encourages solutions. Councils can band children by ability and allow each school to select only a limited number from the top band. Or they can decide by lottery which parents get places in over-subscribed schools. In either case, some middle-class parents get bounced into “bad” schools. Up with that they will not put. It is no use telling them that, if their children attend, the schools will soon be “good”. They will create a political stink, as they did when Brighton introduced a lottery this year.

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That’s the problem for a Brown government. New Labour’s central aim was to secure middle-class commitment to public services which, it feared, would otherwise wither away. It promised levels of choice and personal service like those in the private sector. In other words, whatever middle-class parents want, they should get. After this month’s election results, Brown won’t be keen to deny them. But how can schools then do what is required for Miliband’s “egalitarian project”?

The think-tank Compass’s website offers ideas (see “Education: a model for public service reform” at uk/publications/thinkpieces). Very small classes in deprived-area schools might attract even the most prejudiced middle-class parents. Choice could be replaced by a new form of accountability, in which schools are run by area boards voted in by parents of under-18s.

No doubt there are drawbacks to both proposals. The solution favoured by the education department’s most influential adviser, Sir Cyril Taylor – to create “partnerships” so that parents apply to clusters of schools, rather than individual schools – may be better. But a Brown government will need courage and ingenuity to reconcile egalitarian ambitions with political realities.

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