Educational choices

The debate over David Willetts' accidentally controversial speech on education continues to rumble on. As Willetts and Cameron have themselves kept the debate alive, through Willetts' appearance on Sunday AM, and David Cameron's unconvincing protestations yesterday that the whole shadow cabinet is behind this policy, I will take the opportunity to return to the issue in more detail, with the benefit of a little more time for consideration.

Most of the commentary has consisted either of visceral, intuitive hostility from a loud and apparently-numerous internal opposition, or of repetition of Willetts' key point by Dave's Varangian Guard and a troupe of generally left-of-centre outriders from academia and the media. Let us try another approach. The merits or otherwise of grammar schools and City Academies can be debated ad nauseam, each side with its own statistics and anecdotes. There will be no resolution so long as everyone is busy deciding what sort of education is suitable for other people's children.

This is not a debate with a right and a wrong answer (at least, not in the sense of the clash of prescriptions that is being debated). Those different experiences and statistics demonstrate not that one side or the other is right, but that we are not all the same, one size does not fit all, and that any centrally-mandated solution, whether grammars and secondary-moderns or more City Academies, will fail to reflect that diversity. Only by removing standardisation, and allowing schools (heads and governors) to decide for themselves how best to satisfy local demand, can we hope more closely to match what people want to what they are offered. It will not be perfect, but it will be less imperfect than all those efforts at standardisation driven by the foolish belief that the imperfections of diversity can be corrected by central mandate.

Freedom for schools may dissatisfy both sides in the debate. There is no certainty that more schools, if given the freedom, would choose to be more selective. Nor is there certainty that they would not. The grammar-school proponents want mandated selection, and would not get it. The City-Academy protagonists want to mandate egalitarianism and forbid selection, and would not get it either. If such flexibility engenders hostility from both sides, it will demonstrate what an illiberal bunch even those of a supposedly liberal bent have become. They want the freedom for everyone to have the limited set of options that are determined best for them. That is no freedom.

Liberalism died a slow painful death in France after 1789 and in Germany after 1848. It has been in chronic decline in the UK since the middle of the nineteenth-century, but has remained sufficiently resilient to stage occasional revivals. It remains to be seen whether 1997 was the start of the final decline in the UK (and 2000 a similar wiching date in the USA). Is real liberalism - classical liberalism, the liberalism of small government and individual freedom - dead in the Anglo-Saxon world too, or can it be resuscitated? Certainly, it will struggle to survive the "tender cares" of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. It needs more robust treatment. Will the real liberals in the Conservative Party stand up and be counted? Or will they stand back and let Dave and Gordon administer the morphine that puts it out of its misery?

This may sound a large philosophical leap from an apparently technical argument about the merits of different forms of educational institution. But this debate is symptomatic of the way that our political debates no longer encompass a classical liberal option. The choices are socialist or conservative. We will have big government directing our lives, it is just a question of the objectives and methods of that government. The option for government to have no opinion, to leave it to individuals, seems to be almost completely absent from most political debates. Hence, the broader philosophical significance of the depiction of this debate as a straight choice between prescribing grammar schools or prescribing City Academies.

At root, both prescriptions represent a failure of analysis and intellectual honesty. They are solutions to a problem that has been mis-diagnosed, due to a categorisation error.

Let's go to the heart of Willetts' argument (as most grammar-school proponents, such as Simon Heffer, failed to do). Willetts acknowledges that grammar schools worked for people like himself and many other members of our (political, academic, etc.) elites. But he argues that circumstances have changed, such that grammar-school education is no longer as accessible to all members of society as it was when he and his peers took their education. His principal evidence is that the proportion of children receiving free school meals at grammar schools is generally very much lower than the proportion of children receiving such meals within the catchment area (typically 12% within the general population, but 2% within grammar schools). Grammar-school proponents have interpreted him as arguing that middle-class parents are buying access to better education buy buying properties in the neighbourhood of good schools, driving up housing prices and driving out poorer families. That is not his argument, and he is right to say that his statistics indicate that there would be reduced access for certain social groups even if this were not a factor. The argument that a grammar school in every town would overcome his objection simply misunderstands his objection.

But that is not to say that his argument holds water. Just because your opponents levy an invalid objection against your argument, does not prove or legitimise that argument. There is a significant assumption at the heart of Willetts' point. It is an assumption that is, at best, untested, and very likely invalid. Willetts assumes that those from poor backgrounds who went to grammar schools in his day were drawn from a similar social group to the modern group that is currently entitled to free school meals. He is saying that there is and always has been only two (or perhaps three, if we differentiate the upper-class) social groups - poor and affluent, or to put it in its old terminology, working-class and middle-class. Very Marxian of you, Comrade Willetts.

Such a binary division of society into haves and have-nots is not valid. It never was, but it is less applicable than ever nowadays. There are (and this is a fact to be celebrated) many affluent members of what once would have been called the working-class. Good tradesmen - plumbers, electricians, carpenters, builders etc - can, thanks to the scarcity encouraged by a blinkered educational policy, earn much more than many of their white-collar brethren. Indeed, many of those brethren, professionals, members of what we once might have distinguished as the middle-class, earn well below the average wage. We can still distinguish between these groups sometimes, whether by accent, or the state of their hands, or perhaps to a lesser extent by the radio-stations they listen to, the newspapers they read and the sports they enjoy, but the dividing line is hopelessly blurred on an intergenerational basis. It is no surprise nowadays to hear that a child of a tradesman has gone on to be a lawyer or accountant or engineer - it is just another career option. Increasingly, there is movement also in the other direction, as the old middle-classes realise that there is money and no shame in the trades.

The real dividing line now is not one of class or affluence. The dividing line is the relationship to the welfare state. It is the difference between those in employment or who genuinely seek employment, and those who are resigned to living off the state. Many toffs and grammar-school boys are inclined, patronisingly, to confuse the latter group with the working class - an insult to the vast majority of hard-working, tax-paying members of that group. We need different terminology to reflect the changing division. Most of us now - rich or poor, northern or southern, public-school or state-school, "posh" or "common" - are working-class in the sense that we work for our living at jobs that are often mundane and bureaucratic regardless of type, middle-class in the sense that there are (very much smaller) social groups above (the tiny remaining aristocracy who live off the proceeds of their estates rather than "earned income") and below (those who live off the state). There are many groups, sub-groups, overlapping groups within that dominant middle-class, but the things they have in common, and the ease with which the next generation may move from one sub-group to the other, distinguish them as a group more clearly from those above and below, than one sub-group may be distinguished from another.

Upper-class will still do as a term for that small and shrinking group above this dominant middle layer, but we need a new term to distinguish the group below, for which working-class is clearly a misnomer. Some have referred to this group as the underclass. I have used the term indolent class. That is, in a sense, too pejorative. The members of that group are as much to be pitied for the traps our governments have created that remove their incentive and ability to escape from their circumstances, as they are to be condemned for choices and patterns of behaviour that ensure successive generations remain trapped. But I find the term useful and will continue to use it, as it highlights more clearly than the term underclass that the feature that distinguishes this group from the majority of society is that, for whatever reason, they are not seriously seeking employment.

It is not difficult to move into the indolent class. Drug-addiction, psychological problems, serious injury and ill-health, or simply old-age may condemn a person to a life dependent on the state. We may distinguish the degree of culpability and entitlement to sympathy, but the result is the same.

Moving out of the indolent class, without the assistance of family or friends from outside that class, is very much more difficult. A CV that suggests someone may be unreliable or require special measures will reduce dramatically the employment opportunities, whatever legislation is introduced to try to counter this reality. The relative generosity but aggressive means-testing of benefits means that the value of what little employment may be available is often barely sufficient to make up for the loss of income from the state. Once a person is reduced to state-provided accommodation as well as income, they may find themselves in an environment where earning an income is scorned, distractions and unpleasantness are such that optimism and self-respect, let alone the drive to better oneself, are hard to maintain, and an address which itself may reduce employment chances (unfair, but nevertheless another harsh reality). Stripped of hope of betterment through work, the rational focus of one's efforts is to understand and play the welfare system, to maximise the income from the state. Without the discipline or income from work, one's life will focus on those generally intelligence-destroying, will-sapping entertainments and distractions that are available, such as drugs, random sex, TV and computer games. Children brought up in this environment may have neither the opportunity nor the motivation to pursue studies diligently, and their parents (if present) may not have the desire and/or the ability to encourage them.

It is facile to suggest that either grammar schools or City Academies will solve this problem. You can lead a child to Chaucer but you can't make it think. The availability of good education provides no certainty that those who most need it to break out of their cycle of deprivation will take advantage of it, particularly if circumstances otherwise conspire against them.

This group constitutes many of those who occupy the bottom income decile of modern society. Even if their families also occupied the bottom income decile of society at the time (and many of them will have been one or two deciles higher), it is not the social group from which Willetts and his fellow grammar-school boys were drawn. They may have been poor, but time and again, you hear how their parents worked hard to do what they could to provide their children with opportunity. What our indolent class is lacking is not access to the right school but the moral lead and home environment to support hard work and value education.

The modern successors of the poor families of grammar-school kids are not, broadly, those on benefits entitled to free school meals, but those trying to provide a proud, stable, respectable home on low pay. Whilst simple poverty will itself be a disadvantage to academic performance (because wealth can buy extra tuition, the space to study in peace, etc), it was ever thus, and yet such an obstacle can be and often is overcome with intelligence and parental support. Willetts managed it in his day, and the 2% of grammar-school kids on free school meals are doing it today. That it is only 2% and not 12% tells us not that selection is wrong but that bad parenting is wrong (and more common). Moreover, that comparison almost certainly underestimates the proportion of children from poor households going to grammar schools, excluding, as it does, those who come from poor working homes ineligible or too proud to take free meals. Children like Willetts, in fact.

It is not the working poor whose exclusion Willetts has identified, but the indolent poor. The answer to their problems, to the limited extent that there is anything that government can do about it, lies not in education policy, but in welfare policy. Only the individual can choose not to take drugs, not to sleep around and produce children for which they are unable to provide, to look for work (even if it doesn't earn much) and so on. But the Government can provide vital assistance by removing the perverse incentives that currently encourage their delinquency. I am not going to divert here into the question of how welfare can be improved to avoid penalising joint parenting and encouraging single parenting, but that is clearly an important and deliverable factor. But in this context the most important contribution the Government could make would be to remove the financial disincentive to take whatever employment is available, and thereby provide both the income and self-respect to break the cycle of deprivation. The Government's contribution should be - and I am sorry to sound like a broken record, but this really is the only way of cutting this Gordian knot - to replace our whole byzantine welfare system with a Basic Income (and our complex income-tax and national-insurance systems with a flat income tax). Only this can make a serious reduction in the exceptionally-high, effective, marginal rates of taxation on low incomes that result from means-tested withdrawal of benefits, which do so much to discourage people from trying to break out of their circumstances. Not everyone would break free if given the opportunity, but at least those who had the will would also have the incentive to try.

The Basic Income could have another benefit for the education of the poorest members of our society. If extended to children as well as adults, a good proportion could be earmarked for the education of those children. If schools are really to be free, their income must be tied to the children they educate, rather than provided directly by the state. Willetts spoke with some enthusiasm about school vouchers, but he did not include them in his list of proposals, while he did include in those proposals direct state-contracting with schools, for instance to guarantee that "traditional" teaching methods would be used. Even if he had included vouchers in his proposals, it would have given parents the option to choose only from those alternatives that the Government saw fit to provide. Vouchers without freedom for schools to set their own agenda (entrance criteria, discipline and so on) are like roubles in the old Soviet Union - you could spend them however you wanted, but because the state ran all outlets and produced all goods, there was little to buy and even less variety from which to choose. Consumer choice is worth nothing unless it is coupled with freedom of and competition in supply.

Willetts' world offers the freedom of conformity. My world offers the freedom of diversity. Independent schools would compete to attract pupils whose fees would be covered (at least partially) by a good share of each child's Basic Income. The Government would agree to provide additional funding for each place offered at the price of that share of the Basic Income, encouraging schools to offer places at prices that all families could afford. Schools would have complete freedom to determine their own policies, and to combine with other schools to share costs and experience, or to remain fully independent. Those parents who were able could choose to home-educate, and could subsidise that choice with their childrens' Basic Income. Parents in areas where existing schools were unsatisfactory would be free to get together to educate their children, perhaps forming the basis of a new competing school. The state would only intervene in parents' and schools' choices if the children were unable to pass certain landmark tests. The state's role would have been reduced to ensuring the financial accessibility of education for all, and prevention of abuse of the system.

Willetts thinks the problem of education can be fixed by focusing on the supply side - make it easier for new schools to be setup and we will have lots more places for everyone in good schools. Keynes was keen on supply-side solutions. It is ironic that Willetts is critical of the failed educational experiments of the 60s and 70s but still wants to rely on the failed economic experiments of the 60s and 70s. Real changes must result from customer "pull", not supplier "push". We need to free people and schools to discover what works for them. It is not as though the failed educational experiments were demanded by irresponsible parents. They were inflicted on parents by irresponsible educationalists, backed by the might of government. Parents will know and want what is best for their children much more reliably than a government will know and want what is best for everyone's children. Let's trust people and harness their instinct to do what is best for their children. After all, trusting people was supposed to be Dave's first principle.