The expenses scandal in Parliament has hopefully provided a much needed wake-up call to those politicians who have forgotten that their purpose in life is to protect and serve the interests of the people they represent. Those politicians would therefore be well advised to reject the arrogant and often patronising approach to politics, where politicians have tended to place themselves above ‘normal’ people in order to organise, manage and plan their lives.
In education this would involve adopting what could loosely be described as a freedom based approach which would be based on the principle that it is parents and not politicians who are ultimately responsible for their children’s education – a responsibility which can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the nature, form and content of education which their children receive. Parental choice or freedom in education therefore isn’t desirable simply because it may help to improve the efficiency of failing government schools. Nor is parental choice in education simply the latest policy reform which will go out of fashion in a few years time. Instead, it is important for the same reasons that religious freedom or freedom of the press are important – because they are both recognised as basic human rights or fundamental freedoms, which deserve to be respected and protected at all costs.
A freedom based approach would therefore recognise that the responsibility for educating children cannot be imitated or transferred to others. Nor can it be sidelined or placed behind other considerations. Instead, it is the key principle upon which the whole system is based and as previously noted by Richard Winter Hamilton ‘[a] distrust of it is a traitorous spirit. . . . Intrude upon it and society stands still. Come once between parent and child, and the golden band which knits all together is snapped asunder’ (Crosby Hall Lectures, 1848). This means that governments must not in any way restrict, undermine or distort this important relationship between parent and child or the natural growth and development of education. As a result, it will not be the role of politicians to dictate which schools children should or should not attend or how much parents should invest in their children’s education. This will again be the responsibility of parents. Nor will it be the role of politicians to dictate who can and cannot set up and manage a school. The liberty to teach and the freedom to educate must be respected and it will ultimately be parents who decide if a new school will flourish or not.
While politicians have previously argued that education was far too important to be left to ignorant parents and the chaos of the market, they must now be prepared to admit that education is far too important to be left to politicians like themselves. Politicians must be humble enough to recognise that their own personal views on education are irrelevant. Nobody is particularly interested in what he/she has to say about how everybody else’s children should be educated. After all, what could any politician possibly know about the detailed and very specific circumstances of each and every pupil and parent across the UK? The fact that each Secretary of State is replaced with an updated model at least every five years shows just how insignificant they are.
Therefore, a future education sector where the rights and responsibilities of parents are both respected and protected will not be planned or directed by central government, nor will it be used to achieve any national objectives. Instead, it will consist of a variety of different national and internationalprivate, independent, autonomous, for-profit and not for-profit institutions, each with their own specific missions. The needs and desires of parents (and not politicians or governments) will be supreme and the government will be restricted to establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different institutions to compete and flourish on a fair and level playing field. The purpose of government in education will be to guarantee that parents and their childrenhave at their disposal the greatest possible number of educational opportunities of all descriptions. This means creating the conditions which will allow institutions to pursue their own aims and objectives as effectively as possible.
Finally, if politicians are to embrace and apply this new freedom based approach then they must also be prepared to admit that despite all of their good intentions, many of their previous interventions have undermined the role and responsibilities of parents and disrupted and distorted the natural growth of education and. Therefore, unless politicians have the courage to admit that much of what they done in the past in education has been wrong then the possibilities for future reform will remain bleak.
An edited version of this article was published in Economic Affairs, June 2010