Choice in Education – The Illusion of Consumerism

This week Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, suggested that British state schools should aspire to be more like private schools, and that they might, according to BBC News, consider emulating the private sector by trying out the “OECD’s international Pisa tests,” which prep-schools use to filter out students who are not academically oriented.

Underpinning much of Gove’s constant churning of the waters in schooling and education, is the belief that choice is the driver of standards and improvement in a child’s expected life chances. By extending the ability of parents to choose from a range of supposedly different models of education, Gove is following Tony Blair in suggesting that education can be packaged like a consumer product, and that in making our choices as consumers, we will naturally select the optimum model that suits us.

Choice might be great in a supermarket, but it has worrying effects in wider civic society. What’s the key affordance that we take advantage of as consumers? What’s the most essential thing that we can do that gives us the semblance of power and control over the things that we consume? Our right to withdraw our choice and to shop elsewhere if we are not happy is about the only thing that we can do if we want to disengage from the model of consumer choice that is put before us. If you don’t like a supermarket then you stop shopping there. If you don’t like a department store then use an alternative rival.

The consumer market thrives on the promotion of rivals, and the semblance of competition between different providers of services. In the consumer model we are free to leave and take our business elsewhere, safe from the consequence of withdrawing our support and our funding. It’s of no consequence to the consumer if we reject a business and it’s products and services. We are right and the business is wrong. It’s the law of the market, and the business that wants our trade has to do everything it can to keep us satisfied. (Now The Telegraph is reporting that private schools are discounting prices to appeal to a cash-strapped UK market to avoid private schools being dominated by rich foreigners).

Is education and learning a consumer service in this way? What happens if we withdraw our support and our custom from a school, a college or a university? What happens if we stop taking an interest in the civic status of our learning establishments? Will others pop-up like magic to provide a better service? Will the market provide an alternative solution that will satisfy our desires and aspirations?

The question is, though, can we really wash our hands of our responsibilities in this way? At the moment the market works because it does what it can to enabling choice for a small number of peoples, those people who can easily benefit from it. The market also ignores those people who are not in a position to exercise choice because they are not in an economic position to do so?

Judging the state school sector by the private sector is therefore disingenuous, especially when the cost of access to a private school is prohibitive and out of the reach of the vast majority of the population. This is perverse.

So, Mr Gove, stop comparing state schools and private schools, it is invidious. It’s not a fair comparison. State schools cannot just pack-up or turn people away. They have to provide a service regardless of the circumstances and the conditions in which they find themselves. They can’t pander to the prejudices of an elite who by virtue of being able to afford to can walk away without a care.

It’s time we started comparing like with like, so lets stop talking about choice as if it is a self-contained idea, free from consequences in a marketplace of open-ended consumer choice. It isn’t. Lets shift the question to think about what our responsibilities are to one another in a civic and civilised society, and how we can best meet them by thinking once more about our mutual responsibilities and the extent to which we are accountable to one another.

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