'Choice' in essential public services

The Illusion of Choice.  Will we be getting Foundation Schools as well as Foundation Hospitals?   June 2004

The papers tell us that Tony Blair is keen to fight the general election on a ‘radical’ manifesto that will promise more public-sector ‘reform’ with greater emphasis on personal ‘choice’.   Choice is a seductive word – who wouldn’t want to be able to choose if something better is on offer?  But is it possible or desirable for there to be competition in essential public services so that all people can have such a choice?  To have choice for everyone, you have to have spare capacity so that the ‘best’ services don’t become oversubscribed.

The dogma of choice conspicuously fails to answer questions like ‘Who ends up using the least desirable services?’  If everyone is allowed to choose, schools and hospitals would have to rapidly expand and contract as they fell in and out of people’s favour.  In practical terms this is certainly both wasteful and inefficient and probably impossible which is why talk of choice for all is, in fact, illusory.

The impracticality of essential institutions operating at spare (and varying) capacity means that some people won’t get to choose as the most desired schools and hospitals fill up.  The ‘choice agenda’ is also incompatible with social justice on the grounds that some people are better equipped to make choices than others.  What about those who for whatever reason are not capable of working out which is the best hospital trust or the children who don’t have a savvy parent to negotiate the education market on their behalf?

Choice might seem to be an easy word to use on the election trail, but parents don’t really want the anxiety of trying to get their children into the ‘best’ schools.  What they really want is for their local school to be of a high standard.   I am frequently contacted by anxious parents going through the Local Education Authority appeal process, who rarely succeed.  Likewise in healthcare, patients don’t want to have to work out where they can get the quickest operation or the best treatment.  They don’t really want to run their local services either – as is evidenced by the local disinterest in the ‘elections’ for the boards of foundation hospital trusts.  People just want quality local services that they can rely on and this is what the extra investment in education and health should be going towards.

Despite this logic, we hear from the papers that Tony Blair is preparing a ‘revolution in secondary education’ where 500 ‘leading’ state schools will be handed ‘foundation status’ giving them powers to borrow money and making them autonomous from local education authority direction over the national curriculum, recruitment, including pay, and use of facilities.  If allowed to go ahead such proposals will neuter local education authorities under the chimera of providing people with a ‘choice’.  The Government is also expected to announce more ‘academy’ schools - a new type of semi-independent state school.  This proposal would also undermine local councils and create confusion over where accountability lies.    And if, as expected, academy schools are constructed from scratch at a cost of approximately 25m each, they will also be a drain on the education budget.

Choice in essential public services is a Tory concept.  They first cottoned on to the seductive and wholly misleading nature of the word ‘choice’ in essential public service in their 1992 Education White Paper: "Choice & Diversity: A New Framework for Schools".  The arguments against it are strong and as the announcement of the Government’s ‘five year plan’ on education looms, the Labour Party must assert itself and stand up for equal access to quality education for all.

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