16 October 2015

In praise of pushy parents


There was a mother at one of my children’s previous schools, a loud American, who was deeply unpopular with the other mums, but not with me. Her offence, in the eyes of the other women, was to be forever complaining. The reading programme was out-of-date, she averred, the music lessons inadequate, the maths too easy.

“She was whining about the new French teacher today,” one of the other mums might say.

“Great,” I’d reply. “As long as she’s doing it, the rest of us don’t need to worry”.

Some of the lady’s criticisms were misplaced, and no doubt the teachers found her a thundering nuisance; but she unquestionably kept them on their toes. Whether she intended it or not, her pushiness thus benefited all our children.

This is the point missed by Leftist opponents of more parental choice in education. As usual, they believe that they are acting in the interests of the poor and powerless; and, as usual, they are wrong.

“Free schools are all very well if you’re articulate and middle-class,” say supporters of uniformity. “But what about those kids whose parents aren’t engaged? Are we just going to throw them on the scrap heap?”

Actually, that’s pretty much what happens under our present system. The GCSE results of our top state schools are twice as good as those of the bottom. Seventy-three per cent of children in Kensington and Chelsea got at least five good passes this year; in Knowsley, that figure was 35 per cent. Ponder that extraordinary discrepancy. A system specifically designed to ensure equality of opportunity creates massive asymmetries of outcome.

Now imagine you took away all the state control. Suppose that there were no regulation beyond the market. Consider, for example, what happens when you buy a pint of milk. The quality and price are not only assured, but they are pretty constant around the country. True, you might pay a fraction more in Kensington than in Knowsley, reflecting the higher ground rents in the Royal Borough; but the milk in Merseyside will be just as good.

How does this extraordinary equalisation come about, given that there are no equivalents of the Local Education Authorities regulating prices? It comes about through competition. Millions of consumers invigilate the system as no committee of regulators ever could.

And here’s the best bit. The system works as well for incompetent as for discerning consumers. I am the least qualified shopper you could imagine. I have no idea about ingredients, brands, prices or sell-by dates. I live in terror of being asked, as politicians sometimes are, how much a pint of milk costs. But, when I buy one, I can be pretty confident that I’m getting a fair deal. Why? Because more knowledgeable buyers have done my work for me. They have played the part of that pushy New Yorker whom I used to admire at the school gates.

Precisely the same dynamic would work in schools if it were allowed to. The sharp-elbowed bourgeois parents, seeking to drive up standards for their own progeny, would incidentally drive up standards for everyone else. They might not mean to, but they would.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and blogs at www.hannan.co.uk.