Monday, October 24, 2005

DD/DC Policy Differences- Public Services

We're all agreed that public service reform will remain a key battleground at the next election. DD's approach is very clear:

'People know better than politicians how to improve their own lives, if only they have the chance. We can give them that chance by reclaiming power from central government and placing it back in the hands of individuals and communities...

So let's transfer to parents the state's power and resources to choose their own school, whether it's local authority or independently run. If socialist Sweden can fund parents to exercise school choice, why can't we? Let's fund and empower patients to choose where they are treated, irrespective of their means, whether it's in a hospital run by the NHS or the independent sector. If Switzerland can guarantee the best healthcare for the least well off - with a radically decentralised system and a rich mix of private and public provision - why can't we?'

This is not choice for choice's sake- as it is sometimes presented- but empowering consumer choice to drive improvement, just like in the successful bits of the economy. And just like with supermarkets, the vast majority still benefit even if they go on shopping in the same old place they've always used. Because the choice actively exercised by some raises standards for all.

And there is growing evidence from around the world that this approach is more than just a nice theory- it actually works (see for example the work of the Reform thinktank, eg here). What's more, it can be shaped so that the poorest members of society are the first to benefit rather than the last. Indeed, on schools, DD says:

"My view is you focus it on kids who are on free school meals. If you qualify for free school meals, you should qualify for freedom of the voucher."

DD's approach is bold, imaginative, forward looking, and most of all it will benefit our more vulnerable groups, always the biggest losers from state failure.

In contrast, DC's approach is far less radical:

We need greater freedom for schools to manage their own affairs, and a greater diversity of schools for parents to choose between. But school autonomy and parental choice are no panacea.

What about those parts of the country where parents have no realistic choice of school? What about the time it will take for new schools to come on stream? What about children who are left in schools that aren’t their parents’ first or even second choice? And how is an individual head teacher or school governing body supposed to fight back against the destructive power of the educational amoeba?

Britain desperately needs a Conservative Government to enforce the rigour that decades of progressive theories have driven out of the system."

Now, nobody denies there are issues, but we need to get them into perspective. For example, while there are obviously "parts of the country where parents have no realistic choice", these days over 90% of us are urban dwellers- precisely where the current system is failing most.

But the real problem we have with DC's approach is that this is exactly what Timid Tone has been trying for the last eight years. It's all very well to talk about the need for the government to "enforce rigour"- maybe even decree the use of those synthetic phonics- but we've been trying that and it simply hasn't worked.

Whether the problem is that "educational amoeba", the Blob (as Chris Woodhead calls it), or simply that politicos and bureaucrats just don't have the ability to second guess what's best for us, we need a far more radical and forward looking approach than a continuation of the timid and ineffective TB agenda.

We need to have the courage of our convictions, because it is the only way of transforming our public services.
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