McTernan On Politics

In the past “market failure” was cited by politicians to justify
their intervention in economic life. The broad political consensus
in support of the free market has reduced these interventions
substantially over the past 20 years. Indeed, the traffic has been
almost all the other way with “quasi-markets” being developed in
key public services. This process is often supported by a rhetoric
pledging “opportunity for all”. And quality and opportunity can
only be gained, it is argued, through choice and diversity.

It is often said of politicians that they prescribe a solution well
before they have made a thorough diagnosis of the problem – “Ready,
Fire, Aim!” There is no doubt that many of our public services are
producer-dominated rather than consumer-facing. Few would argue,
for example, that local authority housing departments are infused
with a vision of public service values.

Yet there are some inspiring examples of service transformation.
The revolution in user and carer-led services in social care is too
little known in the broader public service. As a parent I often
wish that schools could be half as user-centred as the best
services for people with learning difficulties.

Unfortunately, the drive towards choice in education, while strong
on solutions, is weak on analysis. The “how” – parental choice – is
clear but the “why” – what is the precise problem – is
under-analysed. Is the problem working class under-achievement? It
is certainly a scandal that after 50 years of a cradle-to-grave
welfare state the links between your social class at birth and your
expectations in terms of health, education and wealth through work
are as firm and discriminatory as ever. If you want to get on in
modern Britain the best advice is still not to be born to a family
of manual workers living in social housing.

And this goes to the heart of some of the wider tensions in
government policy. If your aim is to tackle the disadvantages of
class then you should explicitly focus on that task. The evidence
of “what works” is likely to take you towards some redistribution
of resources towards the least well-off, as in Sure Start, but
perhaps extending that approach up the age range, and towards
balancing the intake of schools, particularly at secondary level.
What you would never do is create a situation where those with the
most social capital could play the complex system of admission
rules, and cultures, through which the most academic schools are
accessed. Nor could you be sanguine about the ability of
middle-class people to buy postcode proximity to excellence through
the housing market at the expense of the more needy few. If there
is one market that is truly failing today, it is the market in
state education.

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