A balls-up in education


Ed Balls plans to give parents and pupils a list of legal rights, with guaranteed standards, and the right to challenge schools through an ombudsman, and in the courts, if the provision of this 'bill of rights' is not met.

This shows everything that's wrong in schools - and public services generally. They are centrally planned and uniform, and unless you have lots of money, customers (in this case, parents) cannot escape and go elsewhere. In competitive businesses, providers have to focus on customers and serving their needs. In monopoly state services, there is no need to bother. So as the complaints mount, ministers send out one central directive, then another – Stalin-style. None of it does much good, and the complaints continue. So then they move to give customers 'voice' – saying they are guaranteed this standard, that standard, this right and that right, and can have a say in how things are run.

This has never worked. Most parents, patients, and public service users do not want to sit on a governing board or have to bother with constant public meetings and elections (I sat on a school board for four years, and became an elector for my local hospital, and I must say that both were a complete waste of time). Public service users certainly don't want to be bothered complaining to an ombudsman or spend the nervous energy going to court if their treatment is poor. They just want a decent service. In a competitive sector, like supermarkets or filling stations, they can just take their custom elsewhere. They don't need to sit on the board of Tesco or Asda – they just go elsewhere, and that sends a vital signal to the providers about what customers actually want. Exit is far stronger, and easier, than voice.

It really does give the impression of beleaguered government strategists pushing phantom armies across the map. In a statement that shows the system's complete contempt for customers, school heads have said it will be a 'whingers charter'. Well, we need more people to whinge at bad service. But we also need to give them the power to go somewhere else. That is why a Swedish-style state-money-follows-the- child voucher system, which the Tories are considering, looks so attractive.

Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.