Will “Parent Power” Proceed in Britain?

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

A controversial proposal to expand secondary school choice in Britain is fracturing Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party caucus. In a classic case of political triangulation, Blair ran on a platform of “parent power” in the last election, a position that co-opted the Conservative Party. Now he faces a backbench revolt from the left-wing elements in his party, people who defend a centralized, ineffective model as fervently as our own public school establishment.

Blair’s policy is bold. A White Paper—titled Higher Standards, Better Schools For All, released last fall—lays out the arguments for introducing what amounts to a voucher system for school finance: “Many other countries have successful experience with school choice. There is increasing international evidence that school choice systems can maintain high levels of equity and improve standards. . . . We believe parents should have greater power to drive the new system: it should be easier for them to replace the leadership or set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with existing schools.”

Citing success stories from voucher systems in other countries like Sweden, the paper describes a problem which, like ours, has dogged British schools despite successive waves of reform: Without expanded parental choices, children from the poorest backgrounds find themselves stuck in low-performing, inner-city schools that fail to impart the skills they most need for upward mobility. It concludes that the best way to break out of that vicious circle was to empower parents to seek alternatives outside their own neighbourhoods.

The central principle, also a key element in New Labour’s healthcare reforms, is that governments can better accomplish important social goals by funding the consumers of services, not unresponsive bureaucracies. That’s where best practice in public policy is going. Whether the issue is public schooling, healthcare, pensions, daycare, child protection or housing, governments mandate, fund and then get out of the way.

This creation of internal markets has significant advantages over the troglodytic model now prevalent in Manitoba. When service providers face competition for resources, not bloc funding based on historical entitlements, they tend to try harder. For elementary and secondary education, the best Canadian example is the Edmonton Public School Board, where the money follows the child, and where parents have an extraordinary range of school choice. The result? An explosion of productivity and diversity, and the highest test scores in Canada.

A new Frontier backgrounder outlines what Blair and Ruth Kelly, his Secretary of State for Education and Training, seek for British children, and they are explicitly invoking a model similar to Edmonton’s. It includes a significant expansion of the “grant-maintained” status already enjoyed by the best-performing schools, a form of school-based management with more freedom over assets and staffing. All secondary schools will obtain more freedom to own their own land and buildings, manage their assets, employ staff, improve their governing bodies and initiate partnerships with outside sponsors and educational foundations. There are also plans to reduce the amount of red tape schools need to cut through in order to change their policies.

The Labourites have backed up their commitment to better schools with more money, a lot more. In the last seven years, take-home pay for teachers has risen 20 percent in real dollars, with 32,000 more teachers hired, plus another 130,000 in support staff. Capital investment is up seven-fold, and more is promised. Test scores have improved, but not nearly as much as had been anticipated. The Brits have learned the hard way that pouring more funds into broken schools doesn’t work. The system needs structural reform.

Needless to say, none of this sits well with the old Left in the Labour Party. In January, the select Parliamentary committee on education demanded changes in the “parent power” proposals. According to the London Telegraph, a committee majority “proposes that local authorities should be given a new power to clamp down on bias in school admissions systems, and proposes constraints on the independence of trust schools.” What galled them especially was a perceived danger that better schools would cherry-pick students on the basis of class. Although Blair and Kelly are prepared to compromise on some details, the heart of the policy reforms seems secure.

The existence of policy old-timers in the Labour Party should come as no surprise, because we have a fair share of them ourselves. Witness the recent ramblings in the Winnipeg Free Press of John Wiens, Dean of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Education. Of Alberta he writes, “many of their schools are often devoid of even the most basic materials and bereft of any sense of community spirit and goodwill.” None but the most trenchant ideologue would read that in Alberta’s superior test scores and vibrant schools of choice.

“Schools are more likely to be efficient, more effective and more responsible when governed as close to the action as reasonable,” Wiens correctly states, but uses the principle to defend our status quo, with school boards at the heart of the action. The good professor needs to wake up. Only a small fraction of the public bothers to vote for trustees. The real power lies with the Province, which dictates every jot and tittle of school policy.

That kind of centralization kills the ability of schools to improve because it minimizes the power of those who are really “close to the action” in public schools—parents, students, teachers and principals. Whether or not he succeeds, Tony Blair deserves credit for recognizing that. If it proceeds, “parent power” will fix Britain’s public school problem, and it could do the same for us.