Bethan Marshall: 'That school looks good. I'll take it'

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The Independent Online

In the very murky waters of education policy a thin strip of clear blue water is emerging. You could be forgiven for missing it because it has been obscured by the rhetoric of the market, but it is there, and its source is the way both the Tories and Labour understand the product that is education.

In the very murky waters of education policy a thin strip of clear blue water is emerging. You could be forgiven for missing it because it has been obscured by the rhetoric of the market, but it is there, and its source is the way both the Tories and Labour understand the product that is education.

Last week's word was "choice". The Conservatives took their old idea of vouchers off the shelf, dusted it down a bit and said, under them, parents would be given "x" amount of money to spend on the education of each child, be it in the state or private sector. The basic premise of the Tory philosophy is that education is a product that can be good or bad, and that money buys you quality. Privilege can be bought.

Such choice is a chimera. Nearly all the most desirable independent schools select pupils on ability. True, parents are at liberty to put their children in for the entrance test, but in the end it is the school, not the parent, who decides whether or not a child can go there. If it were otherwise, such schools would have a comprehensive intake and would not achieve the results they do.

Nor does much choice exist in the state sector. Country towns and villages are often served by only one school, and in the cities, popular schools are heavily oversubscribed. A well-regarded comprehensive can attract up to five times the number of places available. Cramming such schools with every taker would change their character beyond recognition and for most would be a physical impossibility. In reality, like their independent counterparts, these schools also select.

But it is not only the myth of choice that makes the Conservatives' policy problematic. The difficulty with an unbridled market is that dissatisfaction, inequality and failure are built into the system. To begin with, for the market to work I have to be persuaded to want something I don't really need. In my case this is bags. A tad girlie, I know, but it makes the point.

A few years ago, this was not so. The appeal of most bags seemed to be the softness of the leather and the quality of the stitching. This was dull. Then an explosion of colour and design hit the high street and made Italian designer labels not only seem within reach, but appealing. Other well-known brands joined in, high street stores upped their game and opened accessory shops, and I was hooked.

Yet, as many parents will find - even under the Conservatives - my choice is still limited by my ability to pay. I can't, nor ever will be able to, afford much of the glamour and glitz on offer. All that the infinite array of choice does is to leave me slightly dissatisfied with what I already have, even though the actual differences and functions, apart from the label, are barely discernible.

And then there are the brands that I no longer look at. In a competitive market, some businesses will fail. The problem is that such an outcome is unacceptable for a school because education, however the Tories sell it, is not just a product you can buy: it is an entitlement, a life chance.

And this is where the Labour rhetoric of choice is different. The notion of personalised learning, which now lies at the heart of their education policy, appears to borrow heavily from consumer language. It echoes the idea of personal shoppers and thus choice in a bountiful market. But it has two important differences from the Conservatives. To begin with, David Miliband's speech, in which he launched the idea of "personalised learning", acknowledged that a totally free market is inappropriate for schools because no public sector service can allow one section to suffer at the expense of another.

Personalised learning is designed to allow for a collective "voice" to be heard so that individuals don't become isolated. To illustrate his point, Miliband gave the examples of the Gifted and Talented Programme and the Excellence in Cities initiative. Both have allowed bright children to emerge in difficult schools and join forces with other like-minded pupils.

He points to the way in which schools have formed partnerships and networks with outside agencies and other schools to support this and other kinds of work. At its heart, therefore, lies less the idea of competition and more the idea of a community working together for the next generation.

But, more important, personalised learning is child-centred, which is a very traditional progressive ideal indeed. First and foremost - Labour is saying - education has to start with the person learning, and schools must accommodate their needs. Beneath the rhetoric, then, the real choice, it seems, lies with the voter.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London

education@independent.co.uk

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