There is likely no book on the market that better sums up the state of the British education system than Chris Woodhead’s A Desolation of Learning. It opens with a damning tsunami of proof on the dumbing down of exams and ends with a thoughtful conclusion entitled The Road to Freedom (a nod to an essay by Iris Murdoch, not Hayek). Everything in between is just as good.
Written prior to the transfer of power from Balls to Gove, the critique of both is still relevant to the current debate. Take his references to Oakeshott for example. Despite Gove’s unreserved and worthy personal intellectualism, the government nevertheless often defines education policy as an economic public good instead of intellectual private good that happens to result in unforeseen public benefits. The distinction is important because the former has been used to justify increasing government interference for social and economic ends impacting unduly upon the role of the educator and those to be educated.
Every person I speak to involved in education policy is asking themselves the same question right now – when will Gove come out and confirm or deny whether free schools can be run for profit? Woodhead addresses this issue straight on this book and offers a robust defence of for-profit schools for the delivery of education (and is not afraid to support them over the charitable model). On this he writes: "where there is no profit motive there is no incentive to expand capacity. It is more congenial to avoid risks and challenges of expansion and instead to channel ever-increasing surpluses into ever more elaborate facilities, which entrench the elite nature of the institution. Surpluses, which could achieve high returns on investment if re-invested in capacity creation, are used to build state of the art, five star facilities for the tiny minority of pupils whose parents can afford the highest fees. It is hard to think of An ownership system less likely to expand capacity and widen access." So true.
Reflecting upon education policy since the book, I think Woodhead strikes the right tone. There are of course things to congratulate Gove for, and leaks about this week’s white paper suggest that there will be more to celebrate. An overhaul of teacher training looks to be unashamedly radical and positive. But still we are right to want more because the success needs to be undeniable and universal. And as James Tooley of Newcastle University states in TES, "The problem with the free-school policy is that, ultimately, the schools are not accountable to the parents, but to their paymaster, the Government."
Woodhead and Tooley are both right. Gove needs to allow for-profit free schools. Once free to choose, future governments will not be able to to wrestle power back from the people, as they will be up against one interest group they cannot ignore: parents.