Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Liberal LibDem blog

The Apollo Project is a blog which appears to be from the Liberal wing of the Lib Dems, and is proving to be an interesting read so far.

Today's post picks up on the recent calls for the reintroduction of grammar schools. In discussing the purpose of education the author notes:
The difficulty is that British society and culture has long had an anti-intellectual streak which is particularly prevalent amongst young males today. Consequently many children are unable to develop their potential as they are forced to conform to the playground norms that deride learning.
and goes on to argue that there is a prima facie argument for grammars on the basis that they can shelter academically inclined kids from the disruptive elements. He worries about those condemned to study at secondary moderns, and about the practicality in rural areas.

It seems to me that Lib Dem thought on education has something of a poverty of imagination combined with an excess of ambition. The ideas on LibDem blogs on how the education system should be structured hark back to the 1950s - grammars, secondary moderns, college based learning for the practically minded. Who says it has to be this way? If the Lib Dems are not socialists why is there no discussion of vouchers or competing providers? Splitting children into streams is one idea, but at the end of the day this would be a political decision imposed on the whole country by the government. The education system would remain the centrally planned monstrosity it has been since the second world war - the Liberal Democrats need to wake up and realise that central planning doesn't work. Politicians need to have the humility to understand that they do not have the answers and neither do their civil servants, their special advisers, the unions, the City of London, the Guardian or anyone else. Someone out there has the answers, but until we free the market find them, we will never know who.

One of the principal objections to competing providers, whether state or private, is the idea that in rural areas there could not be adequate competition. There are many reasons why this doesn't have to be so. One can imagine a national education marketplace dominated by a few big brand-name providers. While one company might have a monopoly in a rural area it could not allow standards to slip even here because of the detrimental effect this would have on its reputation. The nursery provider Nord Anglia is a prime example of this - its share price dived spectacularly when poor standards were publicised at just one of its sites.

It is also worth remembering that before the state became involved in education, schools were much smaller and more local, particularly in rural areas where it is still possible to see abandoned school houses in tiny hamlets. A single state school now would quickly face competition from small private schools responding to a need for local provision. Why? Because that is what parents want.

At the fringes, the Lib Dems are starting to think like liberals rather than socialists. There is a long road still to travel though.