School for scoundrels

It’s not exactly surprising that secretary of state for education Michael Gove has said he has “no ideological objection” to schools being run by businesses for profit. After all, as he points out, he is a Conservative: it’s pretty much a given that he’ll prefer corporations to citizens if the former wants something that the latter has. In this case, the something is funding for education.

I’m still small-minded enough to think that if there’s money washing about in the education system, then it should be reinvested back into education, not diverted to shareholders. I’m such a giddy idealist, I think that having already paid tax to support state education, it’s a bit bloody much for the state to cast that money out to the private sector on the understanding that profit is a better motive for education than responsibility. And I’m sufficiently economically naive that I just can’t understand how installing extra layers of non-educators is going to make the system more efficient or better value.

But while Gove says that “school improvement will be driven by professionals not profit-makers”, the profit-makers have already moved in. According to The Economist, Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan is due to set up two academies in London. University College London is also getting into the academy business, and The Economist reckons they’ve chosen well: “Other universities might be advised to follow suit, for the government is ring-fencing spending in this financial year on schools. Universities are not so lucky.” (I guess someone has to pay for those grotesque vice-chancellors’ wages, and if the degree student glut is over, the younger ones will have to do.)

Even The Economist – which clearly thinks academy and free schools are a very good thing – is frank about who these new arrangements will help. It’s not going to be the children who most need support:

Whether having more academies will close the growing gap in academic performance between rich and poor children is moot; the new academies are more likely than existing ones to end up teaching well-off [pupils].

So the flagship education policy is going to entrench inequality, as well as suck funding away from schools and into the pockets of “providers”. And while all this is supposed to encourage appealing-sounding virtues like “autonomy” and “freedom”, Gove isn’t such an ideologue that he’s above a bit of centralised crowd-pleasing curriculum fiddling: he’s keen for empire-apologist Niall Ferguson to direct the history syllabus.

That’s the Niall Ferguson who, having weighed up everything and thought very hard about it, reckons that the deaths of millions of colonised Indians sits very fairly on the balance sheet opposite an entry for “increasing the GDP of Great Britain”. So children can learn the dogma of profits over people in the classroom, while they’re having the dogma of profits over people inflicted on them from outside, making Gove’s centralised decentralisation one of the most elegant hypocrisies of the coalition so far.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Xin Li 88, used under Creative Commons.

Choice for the choosy

The choice agenda is only good for the people doing the choosing. Even the people who want the choice agenda to be imposed know it can’t be a universal good; it’s just that the choice agenda blankets inequality so nicely. It’s not that you’re herding resources unfairly or excluding anyone. It’s just that they didn’t choose the best option, and you did, and really you’re not responsible for other people’s decisions. And if those choices involve the allocation of public resources? Never mind. Snuggle up under your warm choice-y duvet.

This, for example, is the argument one parent gave when she was interviewed by Today about why she supported the Tory “free schools” policy, and specifically why she didn’t want her children to go to the local secondary school:

No… We’ve passed [the school] on a number of occassions. I think what really put me off was [laughs] one of the girls, ah, pupils arrived there and you could see she was at least eight months pregnant.

Anon Bristol parent, Today, 6 April 2010

Teen pregnancy isn’t a brilliant indicator of teaching success, and it’s easy to sympathise with a parent who’s concerned by it. But this parent’s choice would be absolutely, and transparently, at the expense of the pregnant teenager: for this parent, it’s paramount that her children are kept apart from teen mothers. But why should the state take this parent’s side, rather than the pregnant teen’s? Why is the obvious answer a new school without any of the wrong sort of children in it, rather than something like improving sex education and supporting the continued attendance of young parents?

It probably doesn’t matter very much what can or should be done for the pregnant girl at the bad school, though. What discussion we get about education is going to be mostly focussed on how to give that choosy parent what she wants, while the people who probably need the most support are only seen in passing as the debate drifts past.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010