Monday, November 02, 2009

Thieving Parents

The planned school gate sign

The State Commissar for School Place Enforcement has branded parents who flout his authority as "thieves" and enemies of the people. He says:

'The majority of parents are honest, if the dishonest few deprive the honest majority of their rightful places, that is a form of theft.'
He's outraged that parents are prepared to put their children's education before adherence to his rules. How dare bourgeois elements pretend to be living with relatives in order to get a place at a good school! For the sake of social order and the greater good, all citizens must accept the school places allocated to them by State Allocation Directorate!

As we know, the Directorate's preferred method of allocating places is the State Lottery (see many previous blogs, eg here). It's the only fair way to spread the misery of shockingly poor state schools, and to make sure that the few good schools don't start attracting all the best pupils.

The alternative approach of course is that old choice and competition thing. You let the customers choose, just like they do in the independent sector, and you let poor schools go to the wall. And by allowing new entrants to start new schools, you rapidly concentrate management minds in schools that start losing pupils. It works a treat, just like they've already discovered in Sweden and parts of the US.

So why can't we do that?

The official line is that poor schools would soon have loads of surplus places, which is terribly wasteful and we simply can't afford it. Far better to improve all schools by... well, by jolly well improving them... somehow.

Unfortunately, we've been hearing that refrain for the last decade or more. And it doesn't wash any more. As we've seen throughout the public services, top-down improvement programmes are great at imposing Stalinist terror on the workforce, but terrible at improving the service. The iron fist of the state planner has never been an adequate substitute for the subtle self-reinforcing power of the market (cf the collapse of communism 20 years ago today).

Actually, the Commissars themselves now realise their old line is utterly discredited, so today we've been treated to a new one. Usual suspect Labour spokesmen Matthew Taylor and John O'Farrell have both told interviewers that, although parents may think School A is better than School B, that's an illusion: in reality state schools are all bog standard more or less equally as good. Or to put it another way, parents can't be trusted to decide for themselves.

So let's remind ourselves and them of some key facts.

To start with, Labour has massively increased spending on state schools. Spending in England alone will be £46bn this year, which is £6190 per pupil. That's an extraordinary real terms increase since 1997-98 of 109%.

Yet depite all that extra cash, on the most widely used international comparison of pupil attainment (the OECD's PISA study) English pupils have plummeted down the league tables. We blogged the latest (2006) PISA report here, but just as a reminder, our children crashed in all three areas examined:

  • Reading - down from 7th in 2000 to 17th in 2006
  • Maths - down from 8th to 24th
  • Science - down from 4th to 14th
So cost up - huge - and performance down - huge.

Our advice to thieving parents?

If you can't afford private education here in the UK, rent a flat in Helsinki and apply for a place at Helsinki Juniors. Finland spends less on education than we do, yet creams us in the PISA tables.

Alternatively, sit tight, arm yourself with a Big Stick,  and force Gove to go through with those school choice reforms he's promised.

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