Osborne Attacks Educational Choice (no, not that Osborne)

The current debates about so-called ‘free’ schools remind me of an incident more than a decade ago which was somewhat seared into my memory.

The occasion was a Cabinet Office event in about 1994/95 at which the keynote speaker was David Osborne of ‘Reinventing Government’ fame. At the time, Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s book was credited with having heavily influenced the Clinton administrations’ “National Performance Review”, led by VP Al Gore. It was popular with both Tory ministers and members of the New Labour opposition.

Osborne and Gaebler’s book had the sub-title “How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector” and it’s main emphasis seemed to be on how markets, choice and entrepreneurialism could be used to improve public services.

David Osborne’s speech was a well rehearsed and well presented run-through of the main arguments in their book, with the emphasis very much on the markets and choice themes. For those of us who’d read it, nothing remarkable – other than the fact he didn’t mention they also believed that bureaucracy works just fine for some services.

What really made me sit up and take notice was a very unexpected response during the Q&A, in which Osborne got the most passionate I’d heard him. He was asked what he thought about choice and markets in secondary education. The Charter Schools movement in the USA – very much similar to the ‘free schools’ policy of our Coalition government – had started just a few years earlier.

As with ‘free schools’, Charter Schools were supposed to be freed of state controls whilst still being funded from the public purse, and, crucially, be non-selective. Parents had the choice to send their kids to a Charter school or ordinary state school, but the Charter Schools were not supposed to select who they took. A perfect example of choice in operation, very much in line with the themes of ‘Reinventing Government’, one might have thought.

David Osborne however thought otherwise. He said that whilst he was in general in favour of choice there were some areas where it was not appropriate for super-ordinate reasons, and compulsory education was one of them. Why? Because, he argued, schools were the crucible of a pluralist society – it was the place where kids learnt to get along with people of different class, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds. Without this crucial formative experience existing divisions in society would be amplified and damaging – he even pointed to Northern Ireland as an example of what happens when you have segregated schooling. And of course the USA already had an all-too recent history of school segregation which the Civil Rights movement had fought in the 60s and 70s.

Schools choice, Osborne asserted, was already leading to renewed segregation in American schools. Whether or not the schools operated selection (and he thought they in reality did) it was pretty obvious parents were operating self-segregation. There were white Catholic and white Protestant schools being formed, black Protestant and Hispanic Catholic ones, and so on. He thought this was a disaster in the making and for over-riding reasons of democratic pluralism was against choice in this case. State-funded compulsory education, he argued, ought to be used to bind society together rather than splinter it into fragments.

His remarks clearly surprised quite a few in the audience, me included. Most of his listeners were clearly not convinced – this was after-all a mix of Tory policy-wonks and civil servants keen to do the bidding of their (current) masters – and in any case even the opposition New Labour party had gotten the ‘choice’ bug. But I came away thinking just how wise, thoughtful and courageous, his response had been. Some of our current and former leaders could do well to think a bit more about his arguments.

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