The Government have failed to improve the education system via the unimaginative means of large dollops of taxpayer cash. We documented the extent of their failure in the report (PDF, Chapter 1) we launched before this year's budget. That is bad news for taxpayers, whose money has been wasted, and bad news for the children who will not get the education they deserve.
However, there is one silver lining. The quality of the debate over where our education system needs to go next has definitely improved. As Fraser Nelson reported, some of the most imaginative and impressive Tory policies are in the education brief. Thoughtful left-wingers are promoting the advantages of the freedoms that schools outside the public sector enjoy. There are two more interesting contributions today. First, the idea of giving parents the power to call in Ofsted:
"Parents will be able to instigate an Ofsted inspection of their child’s school if they feel that teachers are coasting or failing to stretch pupils to their full potential, under an important reform of the school inspection system."
This would be a welcome move towards using the dispersed knowledge about the state of a school that Whitehall cannot possibly collect but parents can and do possess to better target inspections. The reaction of teaching unions who want to keep parents in their current, powerless situation, highlights how valuable this could be. Their protestations that parents might misuse this power ignore that Ofsted obviously won't go charging around the country at every complaint but will, instead, act when a pattern suggests a school is in trouble.
However, it isn't enough. As we've known for a while, and the Public Administration Select Committee has discovered, the ability to complain and otherwise encourage public bodies to act isn't good enough to allow consumers of public services to drive and control them. Parents shouldn't just be able to complain to Ofsted but be able to take their children elsewhere if they do not think their children's school is up to scratch. A study for Reform found that it wasn't just the new schools that led improvements in standards but the existing ones that upped their game in the face of new competition when Swedish school vouchers were introduced.
Second, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson's call for Britain to adopt a broader curriculum. He echoes long standing calls to replicate the baccalaureates and diplomas found in other education systems and in many private schools with the adoption of the International Baccalaureate. This will work best if it is not imposed by politicians but demanded by parents. As Ferguson says:
"Once the British discovered examinations, they became addicted to them,” he said. It was comical, he added, how much the English exam system resembled the target-driven planned economy of the old Soviet Union in which every last detail was controlled from the centre and based on inadequate information and ideological preoccupations."
Beyond that, as Chris Dillow has noted, a broad education is delivered in private schools in Britain; that suggests such an education is what parents want. New qualifications often mean dumbing down when they are put in place by politicians, parents want high standards so that their children's hard won qualifications will mean something.
A broad education, perhaps based around a baccalaureate or a diploma, and real parent power in schools are both best developed by taking the schools and qualifications out of the hands of politicians.