Ron Glatter responds to James Purnell

James Purnell caricatures choice sceptics as being traditionalists who are fundamentally opposed to choice in the context of public services. In reality, hardly anyone holds such an extreme position.

In my view the Public Administration Select Committee were spot on when in their report on Choice and Voice in Public Services last year they summarised all the evidence they received in this way:

“The evidence suggests to us that, while public attitudes towards choice are generally positive, few people name it as their first priority” (p. 41).

They also made the extremely important point that choice of provider is less important for people than choices from variety, for example options for treatment or access to a wide range of courses.

They concluded that choice shouldn’t be oversold and that its benefits are often exaggerated. They said that the language of politicians has implied that choice is either a solution to all the problems — a magic bullet — or the complete opposite, whereas in reality it’s just one way of making services more responsive. New Labour has greatly exaggerated its significance and potential.

I will concentrate on school education. The little evidence we have on this in relation to parents and schools fully backs up the Public Administration Committee’s approach. Last year the consumers’ organisation Which? (formerly known as the Consumers’ Association) surveyed 866 parents with children in state secondary schools and ran ten focus groups with parents of Year 6 and 7 children. They found that parents valued access and quality more highly than choice:

“Our research shows that above all parents want access to a high-quality local school: 95 per cent agreed with this, reflecting the understandable fact that parents are risk averse when making this important choice on behalf of their children”

(Which Choice? Education, 2005, page 12). I want to return to this point about being risk-averse later as I think it is very important. Six out of ten parents said choosing a secondary school is a stressful experience, especially mothers and people living in urban/suburban areas.

While choice must clearly have a place we should be much more sceptical about diversity. First there is no evidence of a widespread wish for different types of secondary school, apart from minorities who want particular religious or single-sex education. Second, in most areas providing real diversity would be logistically impossible as a study from Bath University showed some years ago.

The extraordinary notion that individuals and organisations can buy control of a school’s curriculum, ethos, assets and so on for a pittance when most of the money comes from the taxpayer, as with academies, is so absurd it looks like a Lewis Carroll invention. Even the specialist school concept makes no sense from a choice point of view since most children’s interests and aptitudes cannot be assessed at age 9 or 10.

The models of private philanthropy, voluntarism and faith-based initiative on which academies and trust schools are based are many decades out of date. To me one of the abiding paradoxes of New Labour is that while it constantly lays claim (as Purnell does) to being ‘modern’, in its policy prescriptions and especially its rhetoric it always seems to lean to the traditional and even the reactionary. This is very clear over school structures and the curriculum, for example the rejection of the key proposals in the Tomlinson report and the recent emphasis on studying ‘heritage’ rather than more modern literature. Can someone explain this strange paradox?

I’ve mentioned how stressful most parents find the choice experience and that they value quality and access above all. Barry Schwartz analysed this problem in his book The Paradox of Choice: why more is less. Choice doesn’t make people happier given all the anxiety and uncertainty involved and, when the decisions are so critical and there are bound to be losers as well as winners, it’s no wonder that parents are risk-averse. Give people choice says Schwartz but he argues that for psychological well-being we all need constraints to our choice-making. He advocates offering a good default option and then allowing opting out. For him, promoting choice and competition as the prime means of improving welfare services is “the central dogma of neoclassical economics”.

John Denham MP, in his powerful article in the Guardian last December, wrote that

“Choice, diversity and contestability should be in any model of public service reform, but they do not define the ideal approach…”

And in his view: “The new model public service can’t survive its first encounter with the real world”. I’ll be interested for example to put the competitions for new schools under the Education and Inspections Bill to the Denham test when they get under way. The choice and competition thesis doesn’t fit either human motivations and aspirations or practical realities.

And from a policy point of view its big flaw is that it focuses on the individual institution (the ‘provider’) rather than the student and the system as a whole. Many of the key policies like extended schooling and 14-19 provision depend fundamentally on schools working in partnership rather than in isolation. The choice and competition thesis reinforces the ‘school as an island’ mentality which is too deeply rooted in English educational history and culture. Therefore it underpins bad old habits rather than taking us in the new direction in which we need to go. I’m involved in a research on this area and can see the damage that an over-emphasis on competition can do to creating a joined-up system which puts the student at the centre. We need incentives, certainly, but they should promote joint working and a systemic approach rather than an atomised one.

[Ron Glatter was for many years Professor and Director of the Centre for Educational Policy and Management at The Open University. He is currently a Visiting Research Professor there and an Honorary Professor in Education at the University of Warwick]

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