I am not going to get at Ruth Kelly- her own side will do that for her. For me it just underlines the tangled web that Labour have created for themselves when talking about Education.
It strikes me that we should now start thinking more Liberally about education- and that means from the consumer interest and not just the producer, which has been something that we have done too much of in the past. In recent months there has been a renewed interest and debate about selection at secondary level. Personally I am not in favour of the abolition of selection where it still exists- basically Bucks and Kent in England- and neither is my party. The real question though is about choice.
The problem I have with Bucks is that the choice available is quite poor. Firstly, the Grammar schools are nowhere near as good as they think: when you look at the Key Stage levels, the school that does best in Wycombe is actually: Great Marlow- a "secondary modern". So despite getting the pick of the pupils, and being better funded and frankly having more supportive, better funded p.t.a.s the results are not as good as they really should be for the grammar schools like RGS, Wycombe girls or John Hampden. Does that mean that selection should be abolished- no! HoweverI would like to see a comprehensive alternative available- and I think it would do well.
Meanwhile, I am becoming more persuaded that choice in education should mean vouchers- and a broader supply of education provision. My own experience was in a large streamed comprehensive. There were faults, but compared to my siblings, who went to minor public schools I did not do too badly. The interesting thing is that the quality of education I received was probably a bit better, but also in the price of the public school was some perceived "prestige"- all part of the market price, but with a voucher scheme, I think that prestige might depend a bit more on academic merit and less on snobbery.
There are positive-and negative- lessons from selection, but the key is to create more diversity of supply and thus a genuine choice for pupils and their parents. Meanwhile the role of the state should be reduced- including the disaster of the national curriculum, which has reduced science and eliminated modern languages. Menwhile it is good to see that the pathetic grade inflation of the GCSE and A levels now faces a challenge from the Bac.Personally I think that the market will always solve this problem eventually, and only government interventionism (of which the Conservatives BTW were just as guilty as Labour) kept the obviously devalued exams in place for so long.
So in short, creating genuine choice- ie a free market- in education is not just a matter of academic selection at 11. It involves creating competiton and diversity. It involves reducing the role of the state- with vouchers, anyone who fulfills the contractual requirements could be able to open a school.
Meanwhile, although my party currently opposes it, I do think that Universities must be freed from government control and be allowed to set fees independently. Again vouchers, possibly funded by a graduate tax would make sense here.
Inevitably education has ended up as a political football - especially for the Labour class warriors. Now I think we have got to be pragmatic and open minded. 7 million functionally illiterate adults and 47% of the population unable to understand percentages (oh, the irony) is not a good record.
Ultimately, though, this is to do as much with social policy as with educational policy. I beleive in a society based on personal autonomy, which means if you screw up, you might have a minimum safety net, but other than that, you take the consequences. That is the flip side of freedom, and one that we must accept with open eyes.
So a controversial post, but I hope it will stimulate some ideas- the cosy complacency inbuilt in the current approach has reached its best before date. The time has come to think about more radical solutions.