Why John Humphrys is wrong on education

After travelling the country visiting schools and talking to head teachers, school children, parents and education experts, John Humphrys has concluded that parental choice “is simply not relevant to the most deprived children. Their parents want one decent school near where they live that can guarantee their child a place. That’s it.” Large increases in public investment and more freedom for head teachers are therefore recommended.

Similar views are often expressed when discussing supermarkets. For example, why bother having several supermarkets in the local area when most people would be happy to have one good local supermarket? Unfortunately, the fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that it fails to recognise that the quality of products and services provided by today’s supermarkets has only come about because people have a variety of supermarkets to choose from and the fact that the sector remains one of the most competitive in the UK economy. Choice, competition and the quality of services provided are therefore all inextricably linked. Restrict choice and competition and the quality of services will stagnate. This is exactly what has occurred in education.

The success stories which John Humphrys refers to in his BBC documentary would have been experimented with over 50 years ago if the education sector had not been nationalised and parental choice and competition restricted. Furthermore, we would now be enjoying the benefits of 50 years of additional innovations which would have transformed the way many children are now being educated, especially those from low income families. Instead we are still stuck with the same old one-size-fits-all government schools, which are now clearly failing many children. Therefore the only way to guarantee parents access to a good local school is to ensure that a variety of different providers are free to operate in a competitive and open education market.

Finally, there is also an important principle at stake in this debate which John Humphrys appears to treat with a certain amount of contempt. This is the much neglected principle of freedom in education which recognises that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s education and that this responsibility can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the kind of education which their children receive. This is a fundamental freedom and a basic human right which doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant simply because parents earn a low income or because they have been denied this freedom for far too long. John Humphrys should know better.

16 thoughts on “Why John Humphrys is wrong on education”

  1. Posted 28/09/2010 at 10:35 | Permalink

    John Humphreys is employed by the BBC – an organisation which is inherently opposed to choice – so of course he’s biased in favour of statist solutions. I could tell you that without having listened to his evident bias (and ridiculous pre-conceptions)over several years.
    He will often attack choice within a ‘public service’ like the NHS -perhaps rightly – whereas this of course is not ‘real’ choice, but a sort of pseudo-choice governed by state monopoly.

  2. Posted 28/09/2010 at 10:48 | Permalink

    “Their parents want one decent school near where they live that can guarantee their child a place. That’s it.”

    What people want is no less than one good local school. They do not demand ONLY one. I think John Humphrys frames the information to suit his prejudices, that is to demand a monopolistic, centrally controlled State leviathan to deliver it. That has, is and will be doomed to failure.

    You give a good example of supermarkets. I use restaurants. Imagine the quality of dining if there were only as many covers available in a town as the State deemed necessary. No restaurant, however bad, would be empty. As long as they provide a State-approved calorie counted menu, they are left alone.

  3. Posted 28/09/2010 at 12:27 | Permalink

    I didn’t see all of the programme but from what I did see this programme seemed incredibly one sided to me. I can only assume that the BBC are working on “the reply” as I type. So as to ensure balance you understand. My concern is that it will amount to “We did contact the DfE but no ministers were available”

  4. Posted 28/09/2010 at 14:39 | Permalink

    There are so many reasons why the supermarket analogy fails – to begin with it’s hard to compare the teaching needs of children with a cut price chicken korma?

    Anyway, there has always been choice in education, providing you can either pay the fees, or move to an area with a good state school.

    Most of the schools with predominantly middle class clientele, or with more control over selection procedures, are already doing pretty well and would largely be unaffected by competition.

    That leaves schools in rather less salubrious settings; the sort of community hindered by adults with few parenting skills, or economic power – a few cut price kormas is unlikely to alter this fundamental dynamic?

  5. Posted 28/09/2010 at 20:36 | Permalink

    In a discussion about education, we should recognise that people can learn — even ‘adults with few parenting skills’. If, in practice, many parents have hardly any choice about schools for their children, there is little incentive for them to make an effort to choose wisely.

    It was a Wykehamist (Douglas Jay) who said in 1948 that ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better’. That is not what his own parents thought when choosing to send him to Winchester.

    It is true that under the present arrangements most people cannot afford to choose an independent school. But the system could be changed; maybe, as a first step, by a voucher system.

  6. Posted 29/09/2010 at 07:32 | Permalink

    Actually, I thought it was a great programme generally, with some very positive attitudes to teaching.

    The only things wrong with the programme was Humphreys’ intermittent analysis which equated to, “schools were dreadful under the Tories, even the schools that now encourage stabbing as a sport are better thanks to New Labour; but now the Tories are back in, get used to your children being forced to breathe asbestos and spending 6 hours a day being told they’re only good enough to work for t’ Lord of t’ Manor.”

  7. Posted 29/09/2010 at 07:49 | Permalink

    a&e: “Anyway, there has always been choice in education, providing you can either pay the fees, or move to an area with a good state school.”

    Let them buy cake? That is not choice, that is over-subscription for a finite resource kept finite due to dogma.

    The sink schools you mention must have, I am certain, some teachers who really care. The obstacles preventing them from founding and operating their own establishment need to be removed.

    As D.R. Myddelton mentions, voucher systems can be instrumental in this. We also need to get the State out of the curriculum and pedagogy IMHO. Producing numerate and literate children should be the measure for funding.

  8. Posted 29/09/2010 at 08:51 | Permalink

    @the a&e charge nurse – you seem to miss the point entirely. The analogy is that there is a vast choice of where we shop and this improves overall quality and value (even cheaper supermarkets still provide good quality products). The same should be true in education. There is little real choice because the state removes it and imposes a top-down system.

  9. Posted 29/09/2010 at 12:57 | Permalink

    Tim Carpenter says, “The obstacles preventing them from founding and operating their own establishment need to be removed” – yes, perhaps they will be removed once we are ALL middle class and every parent is sufficiently motivated (and educated) to play their part in the extra-curricular support that distinguishes the educational experience of children from different levels of the class spectrum.

    Whig – I do get I just don’t believe it.
    There is a similar call for ‘markets’ in health – ultimately such mechanisms only benefit those in the strongest position to exploit them, and that group is not usually those at the bottom of the pile?

  10. Posted 29/09/2010 at 14:19 | Permalink

    a&e charge nurse – on the contrary, I am afraid that the empirical evidence stacks up against you. Choice in schools benefits those who are at the bottom of the pile the most because the better off or articulate can already deal with the problem of lack of choice in education by paying (in some cases), moving into catchment areas of good schools or articulating their concerns to the school. These options are not open to poorer or less articulate people. You have to be very discerning to improve your education in the current system because you have to articulate what is wrong (similarly with health): if parents had choice, they only have to identify good and bad schools – this is much easier.

  11. Posted 29/09/2010 at 14:36 | Permalink

    Philip – ‘good and bad schools’ is too simplistic a formulation I’m afraid.

    What we have are good and bad social milieus – academic attainment is a direct reflection of this reality, and ALWAYS has been.

    Almost 50% of those who get into Oxbridge come from fee paying, or independent schools (even they only make up around 7% of the sector).

    Why do you think that is – I’ll give you a clue, it’s where you find the highest population of A’s & B’s?

  12. Posted 29/09/2010 at 15:08 | Permalink

    @the a&e charge nurse – that’s because the state sector has manifestly failed in its role. State schools should be abolished entirely – all schools should be privately owned and run, based at least initially on a voucher system of some sort.

  13. Posted 29/09/2010 at 15:19 | Permalink

    @the a&e charge nurse – Academic ability is not evenly distributed across socio-economic groups. Gifted children are heavily concentrated in private schools, which also use selection procedures to exclude thick children. The distribution of ability, as well as other positive character traits, at least partly explains the high proportion of private school pupils at Oxbridge, notwithstanding government failure in the state sector as cited by Whig.

  14. Posted 29/09/2010 at 15:33 | Permalink

    Does anybody still believe that public sector education can be improved in-house? There have been no real improvements for decades unless you count dumbing down of courses as positive. Alternatively do you think that the creation of new GVNQ courses that are rated as 4 GCSES is anything other than a means of allowing poor schools to look good? Are there any public departments capable of high and improving performance or being value for money? There never can be because there is no incentive in the public sector for either which is why it is attractive to people who want to avoid being tasked to succeed.

  15. Posted 29/09/2010 at 15:51 | Permalink

    a&e charge nurse: “good and bad schools” was the most sophisticated formulation I could manage within the character limit (I only had one character left). The general point still stands. Obtaining a good quality and appropriate education for one’s children is currently easier for the better off through the mechanisms I describe than it is for the less well off and less articulate. This is why school choice programmes tend to benefit the least well off, those with special needs, minorities and the disabled to a greater extent than others.

  16. Posted 30/09/2010 at 09:24 | Permalink

    @a&e ” yes, perhaps they will be removed once we are ALL middle class and every parent is sufficiently motivated (and educated) to play their part in the extra-curricular support that distinguishes the educational experience of children from different levels of the class spectrum.”

    I was talking of TEACHERS setting up schools. What has this to do with “class”? Why do you insist on believing that it requires every person to be motivated? Busy parents might not have a chance to get involved, but I am certain they would jump at the chance of getting their kids to the best schools possible and news travels fast.

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