When the Conservatives took office in 1979 we had an instruction from Prime Minister Thatcher that we, at the Department of Education, as it was then known, should issue no more that one Circular (to educational establishments) per year. I was the Special Advisor to the Secretary of State, having formulated much of the education policy of the previous years in Opposition. We pursued such policies as the Assisted Places Scheme, Local Management of Schools, and latterly, Grant Maintained Schools.
State education suffers from too much control from the centre. Teachers are snowed under by paperwork, and dismayed at being told how to do their jobs by ministers and officials. All of the major - and many of the minor - operational and spending decisions are made by county and national bureaucrats who are distant from life in the classroom and the real needs of children and parents.
Parents, charities, voluntary and mutual groups, or even private business may well run schools more effectively. They are likely to be more user-focused than centralized state bureaucracies. And today’s information and communications technology makes possible wholly new forms of education, either in the classroom or at home. There can be a role for ‘branded’ learning systems, for charter schools, and many other diverse ways of delivering learning.
Parents want the best education for their children. That is a powerful human force, and we should harness it. In a world of diverse forms of provision, we need to give all parents the power to choose the school that they think best fits the specific needs of their children.
We need to explore ideas such as the education cheque and in particular to extend the power of choice to the very poorest families, perhaps through voucher systems focused on low-income groups. We need to look at overseas models that give all parents access to any state school and even to non-state schools. Instead of allowing bad schools to struggle along as 'sink schools', we need to give effective and imaginative educators the incentive to step in and turn them around. And devolve the budget directly to schools so that they can run things in their own way without endless bureaucracy.
For more on these and other ideas, see our Rainbow Papers on education. non-state schools. Instead of allowing bad schools to struggle along as 'sink schools', we need to give effective and imaginative educators the incentive to step in and turn them around.
In many countries the arts have been effectively nationalized. In the United Kingdom, for example, not one of the national opera, ballet or theatre companies turns a profit: they survive on taxpayer subsidies. Regional companies are even more dependent on handouts. On the continent of Europe, opera and ballet is even more reliant on state subsidy.
Throughout the world, users of public libraries are suffering a vicious circle of decline in services. Free or near-free libraries are commonly provided by city or district governments. But local government budgets are always under pressure - because their services are labour-intensive, their costs rise faster than inflation and local taxpayers become less and less willing to pay for them.
We should privatize the past. We should take control of the nation's cultural treasures out of the hands of bureaucratic 'professionals' and give it to enthusiastic independents. That is the view of Andrew Selkirk in his Adam Smith Institute book, Who Owns the Past?
In the 1970s, public administration was at one stage the most popular career choice. Not any more. Only 1% of under-21s list it as a career goal. Meanwhile 48% express a desire to own their own business, with as many girls as boys saying so.
Big bureaucracies are notoriously difficult to reform. They have their own ways of working, and even though these might be 50 years out of date, the time and cost of moving to new ones can be seen as prohibitive by all who work in them. State bureaucracies have it harder than most, because they do not face direct pressure from customers, and do not see their finances ebbing away when they provide a poor service, since most users have no real alternative.
The NHS is the dominant provider of healthcare services, but it is the dominant funder of services too. Nominally, the financing function of the NHS is a national health-insurance system: but it is a highly dysfunctional one.
Note of a workshop in the House of Commons, Monday 10th July 2000
1. 'I see no reason why patients should have to be referred to and from hospital for services which could be provided in their local GP surgery. This is a win-win situation for everyone. GPs are keen to broaden the range of services they can offer, patients want quicker access and less hassle in getting the care they need while hospital clinics and consultants want to reduce waiting times for their specialist services.' (Alan Milburn, 23 June 2000)