Parents choosing school choice
Michael Gove has good reason to feel pretty pleased with himself this morning. The Guardian reports that as many as 300 separate groups of parents have answered the Shadow Schools Secretary’s call to action on schools. These groups of ordinary mums and dads have proclaimed themselves ready and willing to set up new schools if the Tories come to power and implement Gove’s education policies. In many ways, these parents are vindicating his confidence in the willingness of the public to take up opportunities for involvement and to step up to the mark when they perceive failings in what is already on offer.
It is an oft-repeated critique of school choice that parents ‘don’t want to choose’. Parents, we are told, just want a good school at the bottom of every road. Well, this may be true but the reality is that parents are also deeply unhappy with the admissions system as stands. This year alone, no less than 62,000 mums and dads have appealed against the school places offered to their children. That is a huge number of families being let down by the British education system and a huge increase on the year before.
Just to be clear, it’s not that I think that all these complaints are entirely straightforward cases of ‘parent-knows-best’. Some of them will be mums and dads who have been offered a place at a perfectly good school but have their hearts set on somewhere else. But the fact remains that we have an education system that leaves large numbers of parents disappointed enough to lodge and fight appeals.
It is these parents, one suspects, that are the constituency to which Gove’s plan appeals. They might well prefer a world in which there was an abundance of excellent schools but they know that the reality is very different. They are also, it appears, willing to get involved when it is demanded of them.
If the Conservative Party can demonstrate, through its schools policy, the powerful effect of user-involvement then perhaps there is hope for progressive conservative reforms more generally. But in order to make the case convincingly, they must be prepared to hand over real power to these parents; without that this policy will be little more than a gimmick that will leave those who stand up to be counted feeling let down and underappreciated. Gove has to take the enthusiasm of those 300 parents and use it to show the other 61,000 what can be achieved with a bit of imagination and a lot of hard-work.