Writing in the TES, English teacher Julie Greenhough has a short article entitled ‘Why freedom of choice is often no freedom at all’. It is sympathetic towards a view that has recently been expressed by many working in education: that freedom doesn’t work.
Ms Greenhough opens with the classic ‘too much choice’ argument. Apparently, she didn’t buy a cup of tea because she was faced with too much choice. I suppose that is why shops don’t tend to sell thousands of different pots of jam or types tea for that matter. And this, I suppose, is the reason companies advertise and build up branding, as we don’t want to read the label of every product. Instead, we can draw on information from the market and get a free ride from even more advanced consumers. Variable pricing also transmits useful signals of this front, while feedback from friends, family, the media, as well as consumer oriented magazines and websites are part of the process.
Next there is a swipe at those supporting Swedish-style reforms in education. Ms Greenhough thinks the fact that we spend 5.6% of GDP and Sweden spends 7.1% of GDP on education is enough to cast the reforms aside as useless. Of course more money can help (up to a point), but it is far from the be all and end all of a good education system. If it were, Cuba would be twice as advanced in education as even Sweden and that is clearly not the case. In fact, the fact that the Swedish reforms have proved so successful – garnering increasing support from parents, pupils and politicians – suggests that we can see improvements without having to spend more money, a policy that surely deserves support from libertarians and socialists alike.
In the final part of the article, Ms Greenhough suggests that because more pupils have been achieving better grades, we are already seeing educational improvement. I wish this were the case. Recently Mick Waters claimed that the exam system is ‘diseased’. Although Mr Waters misdirects his ire at the wrong target – it is principally the fault of government regulation, not disreputable companies – there can be little doubt that the image he portrays is broadly accurate. Grades are being inflated and devalued as fast as the pound. Radical change is needed if this is to be reversed.