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Home > Politics

Politicians vs Choice: What's the beef?

6 August 2004

'Choice' is rapidly becoming one of the government's favourite ideas. It's actually an old centrepiece of Tory policy, but recently New Labour has decided 'choice' should be available in education and healthcare. You can only wonder how much thought has gone into these proposals. Ten minutes... maybe more?

The problem is that 'choice' works fine if you're buying a car, but the concept gets deeply weird when you apply it to public services. To see the full absurdity of 'choice', replace 'state schools' with 'cars' and this is roughly what you'd get if the government provided our vehicles...

If you lived in Town A, you could choose between a Ford or a Skoda. If you lived in Town B, you could choose between a Ford, a Skoda or a BMW. If you lived in Town A and you really, really wanted a BMW, you'd have to move to Town B. (If you're nodding your head in agreement with the sheer common sense of this arrangement, you're probably a Labour policy advisor.)

In the real world, of course, consumer choice is linked to price. That's why we don't all drive BMWs. There's also the fact that most manufacturers of consumer goods can match their supply to demand. But in this baffling model, all the cars would be provided by the state for the same price - so who in Town B would buy anything except a BMW? Over time, everyone who could would be driving BMWs, and Skoda dealers in both towns would go out of business. The BMW dealers would simply keep ordering more cars to meet demand.

If by now you're muttering 'So what's wrong with that?', you are definitely a New Labour policy advisor.

The problem is that public services like schools aren't car dealers. Schools can't build new buildings at the drop of a hat to meet demand. And what would happen if schools do try to expand rapidly? Will they be able to guarantee the same quality of teaching that made them popular in the first place, especially if their reputation is based on higher quality raw materials, ie. selecting the brightest pupils? In any case, are head teachers expected to behave like car manufacturers? Their job is primarily to teach and ensure the general well-being of pupils, not run a business.

Again and again the government proposes ideas that are superficially appealing, like choice, but which don't stand up to much scrutiny. If you want to find a blueprint for the future of education, it would make more sense to look at our much-maligned NHS.

Leaving aside local problems in healthcare (big waits to see a GP, hospital bed shortages, etc.), if you break your arm you'll find there aren't wildly varying standards of treatment. Some doctors are better than others, whether it's in terms of clinical skills or 'soft' skills like bedside manner, but all doctors are trained to a certain level. With a few rare exceptions, you're going to get roughly the same treatment whichever doctor you see, unless your doctor is Harold Shipman and he decides to spare you the misery of a month in plaster with a lethal dose of morphine.

Surely this is what we should be aiming for in education (guaranteed levels of service, not mass murder), not inherently unworkable ideas like 'choice'. But since unworkable ideas seem to be in vogue, we've come up with a few more the government might want to implement:

- Public to choose what sort of policemen attend the scene of a crime. Sun readers get a Dirty Harry-type policeman who returns their car radio after an action-packed bloodbath that results in the death of 14 people. Guardian readers get non-sexist Helen Mirren-type copper who successfully juggles work and family life. Daily Sport readers get Lindsey Dawn Mackenzie in a PVC uniform, licking a truncheon.

- Young offenders to be able to choose whether they want a short, sharp shock at a brutal boot camp, or a cushy-number, outward-bound course run by limp-wristed social workers, paid for WITH YOUR MONEY! (Thanks to R. Littlejohn of London for this suggestion.)

- Members of public to be able to choose own public transport. MTV fans demand that local authorities 'pimp my bus or train' by airbrushing the word 'BOOTYMOBILE' on the side.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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