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« Gove on Cameron | Main | The five ages of political life »

The unbearable statism of Tories

The catfight by the Conservatives over the issue of grammar schools has been mildly diverting, if only to confirm my belief that the majority of Tories are now so statist as to be hardly worth saving.

In an op-ed piece in the Times last week, David Cameron set out his vision, such as it is, for the future of education in England and Wales.   In his usual vapid, sub-Blairesque style he praises American charter schools and Labour's city academies (which are basically the same thing) and the voucher systems in Sweden, Holland and parts of the US. He tells us that he wants to open up the supply of education so that something called "social enterprises" can open schools too. He also says that money should follow the pupil. What he appears to be saying is that he will retain the model of a city academy - which is to say a school which is independent of local government - but he hints that he will try to increase the number of them by introducing a voucher system, and by making it easier for people to start their own schools. He is clear though that the freedoms he claims to want for these new schools will not extend to deciding their own admissions policies.

Is this enough to deliver a reasonably functioning education system? I think not. What Cameron proposes is not a market - at best it's one of those ersatz monstrosities so beloved of the Westminster village - the internal market. There are so many things wrong with the proposal it's hard to know where to start. For example, city academies are companies limited by guarantee. They are non-profits to all extents and purposes.  So we can expect education to move from the crazy dynamic of a bureaucracy to the much saner, but hardly earth-shattering dynamic of the Sue Ryder shop. This will be an improvement, no doubt, but we don't look to Oxfam to radically change the face of high street retail and so we shouldn't expect a non-profit schooling system to bring home the educational bacon. The education system needs entrepreneurialism and it needs hard-nosed shareholders breathing down the necks of managers. It needs managers losing sleep at night over whether they are losing pupils to a neighbouring school. It needs risk-taking and it needs investment. This is just not what non-profits do. So why, we ask, are the Conservatives - the party of the free market - proposing such a  statist halfway house. Why will they not just privatise it all?

Also, it is sadly indicative of an unreconstructed statist that Cameron will forbid selection. What does he know about it? Can't people try if they want to? And who the hell does he think he is to forbid it anyway?  I would have thought an applicant for a post on the below-stairs staff would have a better chance of getting the post if he told us how he would scrub the bogs so they shone, rather than giving us a lecture on what brand of bleach he's going to let us use.

There is going to be a great deal of devil in the detail too. After all, we know he will not allow selection, but the question is, what other requirements is he going to force upon the new schools. They will presumably still all be subject to inspection by the HMIs, who are, as is often acknowledged, a huge part of the problem because they insist on the use of antediluvian trendy teaching methods.  Again, it comes down to whether you believe that the best results will be delivered by a bottom-up market-led system, or a top-down experts 'n' inspectors system. Given that the latter has failed for the last thirty years, we are justified in asking why the Conservatives are not proposing to scrap it in favour of the system which allegedly forms part of their key beliefs. Why are they choosing statism?

Discipline is another mantra repeated by David Cameron, perhaps in the belief that by doing so he will appease the tweed-clad grassroots. The Conservatives will apparently legislate to allow headteachers to expel unruly pupils without fear of being overruled. Why, we wonder, does he feel the need to legislate? Wouldn't a free, private school be perfectly within its rights to expel anyone it wanted to? Wouldn't this be simpler to manage and simpler to implement? Why statism? Why not the free market?

Cameron is right about one thing; the argument about grammars is stale and irrelevant. He doesn't know whether they are better than the alternatives and neither does anyone else. The question is whether he has the maturity to stand back and let the market discover the answer. Unfortunately, on the basis of his column in the Times, he is still a long way from learning that lesson.  

For an example of a non-statist Tory approach to this issue, try this


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