The Politics of School Choice

The unacknowledged symptom of middle-class midlife when personal arguments and political choices converge into a farce. So was last week for me!

For me, with a 9 year old, it is that time when the conversation about school choice starts. The British middle class wisdom - State (schools) till 8! - knocks on the door. The juggling of post codes, entrance examinations and school ratings overwhelm dinner table conversations. The conversation about happy children looks quaint, and the intense race for 'future' starts. 

My protestation that the Secondary school is still a good two years away is pointless. I live within an enclave of Indian professionals, striving suburban middle-classmen who grew up in scarcity and embraced oneupmanship as a positive virtue: I am starting the race for future way too late. 

But, indeed, there is some truth in the obsession about schools, and that hits home as I google the local state schools. The story I see is consistent, ranging from grim to mediocre, that about half the pupils of these schools fail to get at least a C. As I look at the ones with about 17% pass rates and silently wonder why they exist, the I-told-you-so scores a home run.

In context of this full-blown personal crisis, have I failed my son already, another, slightly apocryphal, story hits home. Jeremy Corbyn's second victory in a year in the Labour leadership contest highlighted a story that his first wife voted for his rival, which led me to the Wikipedia trail of Corbyn's marriages - ultimately to the story of his second divorce, from Chilean Claudia Bracchitta, on ground of school choices for their son. As The Guardian reported the story in 1999, Corbyn's marriage ended as Ms Bracchitta insisted that their first son must attend a Grammar School, a selective institution that the Labour Party loves to hate, and Mr Corbyn demurred, on a point of principle! 

Given that it was clear that the local comprehensive that Mr Corbyn's son could get into was a failing one, this surely sounds crazy! One must do what is right for one's children, and this adds more colour to the claim, made by middle class politicians across the spectrum (the claim that led to the recent leadership challenge that Mr Corbyn had to fight off), that people like Mr Corbyn fails to understand the middle class aspirations of Modern Britain. The middle class is all about striving, getting better than the 'competition', earning kudos and careers along the way, and Mr Corbyn's views - the one that objects to Theresa May's perhaps only lovable policy of more Grammar Schools - is surely completely at odds with everything my friends and neighbours hold dear.

So, as I get back to all-too-familiar conundrum of the school choice, whether I sign my son up to the preparations of Grammar School examinations, or endure the climbing tuition fees to get him into one of the private schools, there are two questions that obsess me: Why are the non-selective state schools so bad? And, indeed, does Mr Corbyn and people like him live in an ideological cuckoo-land?

That State can not run schools, the familiar argument, is a clear nonsense because there are whole countries and territories - talk not just of Finland, but also of Canada and even our Northern Ireland - that do it very well.And, coming back to Grammar Schools, it is indeed not good enough to say that better schools can only exist if they can select their students, as that will turn the argument on its head and the value-add of the school would be unclear. And, yet, there is something in this conversation about selective state schools that may explain why non-selective comprehensives that perform so badly.

If one knows anything about education, it would be this: It takes a village to raise a child! Despite its obvious African origin and connotations, there is an universal truth here: That education is an ecosystem activity! School is not a self-contained institution, a factory that processes the Children's brains few hours every day. School is one part of the learning environment a child lives in - perhaps the most structured part of her world focused on learning - and everything that makes this world matters in learning.

This sounds obvious, but this is entirely forgotten when discussing the role of parents in education. Our paradigm, that the school is the factory of knowledge and competence, and parents are just paying customers, is completely wrong (for Higher Education, we substitute the parents with the students themselves) and yet it dominates the way we think about education, public or private, and the way we shape policy.

The selective schools are better because they sort out parents who are concerned about their Children's education from those, who, by force of their character or circumstance, do not. And, private schools do the same - with an additional criteria of money thrown in, which helps in segregating the class of parents. 

Therefore, what happens when Private schools (confusingly called Public Schools in Britain), selective Grammar Schools and non-selective Comprehensive Schools exist side by side in a borough? The private schools invraibly have more resources, as they attract students from more affluent households, who could afford more discretionary spending on allied or extra-curricular activities, offering the most attractive options in terms of education and exposure. Selective schools absorb the more academic ones, those with parents who are serious about education and competitive in their worldview. This leaves the unfortunate majority, without money or households focused on education, to go to non-selective comprehensives, creating an ever poorer feedback loops and ghettos spreading their effects on the neighbourhoods.

This phenomena, observed and documented with great conceptual finesse by economist Albert Hirschmann, flies in the face of the Conservative doctrine of 'Choice' - that diversity of school choices in a territory creates incentives for all schools to improve. It is no wonder that the Comprehensive schools in London and South-East of England, where there are more private schools because of the Higher Per Capita income and more selective schools (not uniformly across the boroughs though) historically, are particularly bad, unless they were saved by house prices in the neighbourhoods [some of the best Comprehensives are in Central or West London, where peak house prices ensure a selective demographic]. So, creating more grammar schools, or providing school vouchers so that parents can choose their schools, do not improve the educational capacity of the State schools, they just impoverish them further.

So, does Mr Corbyn live in a cuckoo-land? From my vantage point, fully braced for endless Open Days to be spent in conversations with over-eager parents, he indeed does: He believes that he could change this system, which is a disaster for a democratic society. It is so not just because it creates extreme deprievation among those who lose hope early as their schools fail them, but also delusion among the others who live in the bubbles of private education, lose visibility of the people on the other side and grow up without the compassion that is so critical for democratic survival. This intentionally created Chasm, created early and therefore foundational to how we live, undermines the very systems that we swear by, and creates both the angry voters that voted for Brexit and the manipulative fools such as Boris Johnson.

But, then, Mr Corbyn did not become the Leader of the Labour Party without believing that he could change all this, and build a fairer Britain. That work must start from ending the segregation in schools, building mixed and democratic classrooms. If there is to be a higher form of civilisation, if we are to remain democratic, his vision, however out of context it may appear from a middle class vantage point, has to be realised. And, finally, here is the sad fact about the middle class vantage point: It is over! However much we like to believe that we are on a straight path to Genius economy, where men with brain would rule (and therefore, it makes sense to strive and strive harder for a better school) most of us, unbeknowingly, would actually be left out there. Our hopes should reside in a fairer, cooperative, human-centric society, and not in the vision of a segregated society of winners, run by robotic workers and deluded leaders. Mr Corbyn not only represents that vision, but also the integrity of action that is needed to realise such a future.



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