After travelling the country visiting schools and talking to head teachers, school children, parents and education experts, John Humphrys has concluded that parental choice “is simply not relevant to the most deprived children. Their parents want one decent school near where they live that can guarantee their child a place. That’s it.” Large increases in public investment and more freedom for head teachers are therefore recommended.

Similar views are often expressed when discussing supermarkets. For example, why bother having several supermarkets in the local area when most people would be happy to have one good local supermarket? Unfortunately, the fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that it fails to recognise that the quality of products and services provided by today’s supermarkets has only come about because people have a variety of supermarkets to choose from and the fact that the sector remains one of the most competitive in the UK economy. Choice, competition and the quality of services provided are therefore all inextricably linked. Restrict choice and competition and the quality of services will stagnate. This is exactly what has occurred in education.

The success stories which John Humphrys refers to in his BBC documentary would have been experimented with over 50 years ago if the education sector had not been nationalised and parental choice and competition restricted. Furthermore, we would now be enjoying the benefits of 50 years of additional innovations which would have transformed the way many children are now being educated, especially those from low income families. Instead we are still stuck with the same old one-size-fits-all government schools, which are now clearly failing many children. Therefore the only way to guarantee parents access to a good local school is to ensure that a variety of different providers are free to operate in a competitive and open education market.

Finally, there is also an important principle at stake in this debate which John Humphrys appears to treat with a certain amount of contempt. This is the much neglected principle of freedom in education which recognises that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s education and that this responsibility can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the kind of education which their children receive. This is a fundamental freedom and a basic human right which doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant simply because parents earn a low income or because they have been denied this freedom for far too long. John Humphrys should know better.

 This blog originally appeared on the IEA website on 28 September 2010.