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Ash Faulkner: Choice, not equality; institutions, not factories

Ash Faulkner, an A level Politics Student from Devon, makes the case against "equality of opportunity" in education.

All leftists believe in equality of opportunity. At first glance, it seems a great idea. Why shouldn’t every child have the same standard of education, the same opportunities, the same shot at success? Certainly, the Old Left’s obsession with equality of outcome has been shown a catastrophic failure. Isn’t equality of opportunity the way to go?

The conservative answer should be no. Conservatives should, at all times, favour reality over idealism, and the reality is this: equality of opportunity is one of those ideas that sounds nice on paper, but is impossible in practice. The variables that are at work in a child’s educational development are so many that it is impossible for anyone – least of all the state – to guarantee equal standards. How, exactly, is the state going to ensure that every child receives the same familial support? What if one pupil simply has a more experienced teacher? Doesn’t the atmosphere of the school have any effect? Will pupils be banned from reading up on their subjects out of class?

In fact, equality of opportunity is even more an abstract idea than equality of outcome. Outcome is at least tangible and real, but what exactly is ‘opportunity’? There can never be equality of opportunity, and thank goodness for it. Equality of opportunity is, by definition, concerned with equal standards. Taken to its logical conclusion, what matters is not that the education is good – what matters is that it is equal. So, if all educational institutions are equally poor, that’s fine, as long as everyone is failing together. In any case, the word failure will be banned. All must have prizes, after all.

The potential held back by this zealous application of ideology to education is clear to see. Thousands of children leave school every year unable to read and write; thousands more leave secondary school without any qualifications. The greatest manifestation of ideological education (lets call it educationalism) is the comprehensive school. Even the name implies cold uniformity, and shows just how much the educationalists misunderstand education.

This pursuit of abstract ideas has turned schools from institutions to factories. Educationalists have no comprehension of the importance of a school’s character, ethos, administration and parents. All schools look the same, all schools sound the same, all schools teach the same things. Under equality of opportunity, what matters is equality, not standards. Accordingly, there must be some point at which education reaches its zenith – when all standards are the same. But education is not a scientific exercise, with a beginning and an end. There is no peak of education. We do not need an education system that aims for notions such as ‘equality’ and ‘opportunity’. We need an education system that raises standards. Every generation should receive an education better than the one before it. Progress must be constant. There must be, dare I say it, permanent revolution.

But how to deliver this? We have cast aside idealistic buzzwords like ‘equality’, and lost faith in ‘all under one roof’ comprehensive schools, where pupils are part of a swarming mass. David Cameron spoke recently of the need for a school where the headteacher knows the name of every pupil. How right he was. For this is the point: for dogmatic ideologues, of which the New Left are simply a subtler kind, education is just a means to an end: to get people into employment, or to further support for their ideological prejudices. For the conservative – for whom the mere existence of life itself is a thing to be amazed, for whom people are individuals, and for whom institutions are the bedrock of society – education is an end in itself. Further, it is a never-ending end: there is always more knowledge to be accumulated and passed on to the next generation. What matters is that education gets better, not that it is equal.

Conservatives believe in a vibrant society, in strong institutions, in independence from the state. Let’s tie these ideas together. Let’s unleash education from the grip of the clunking fist. Let parents choose their pupils school. Let those who can, teach, and bring with them their knowledge, not LEA instructions. A Conservative Government should give every parent the right to demand their funding and take it elsewhere. The market is the surest way to raise standards. That should be our aim in education: not to give everyone an equal chance (something which is impossible), but to give everyone an ever-better chance (something which is very possible). 

Many of the problems of today’s society can be traced back to the idealistic reforms of the 1960s and the insidious infection of institutions by the cultural Marxists. David Cameron is entirely right to identify the social and cultural sphere as the area of political life that needs the greatest reform. Uniformity in education has only delivered one result – uniformity in failure. With the impending rise of China and India, our future relies on our greatest resource: the talent of our people. Even Gordon Brown recognises this, though he is incapable of understanding how to utilise it.

School vouchers are the way to go. It is not full-scale socialist nationalisation of education, nor is it the sink or swim libertarianism that some conservatives seem to slip into at times. It is moderate, effective and conservative. We really can have the best of both worlds: the upward push of standards, without losing the talents of the poorest children under a tide of privatisation.

We have to ask ourselves, why is it that two fifths of Oxbridge students are the result of private education? Will shutting down private and grammar schools improve standards, as the left claim it will? Conservatives should seek the abolition of state and private schools. There should simply be no distinction. Every school should be independent and able to pursue a wide and varied curriculum. Every school should take pupils depending on its success. Good schools will do well, bad schools will close, new schools will deliver choice.

As Margaret Thatcher once said, "Let our children grow tall; and some grow taller than others." Presently, for most, growth is entirely stunted. What this nation needs is choice, not equality; institutions, not factories. Every school should develop its own ethos, its own values – even its own lessons. Every course should be an exercise in leanring, not just a blunt tool to further productivity. Every teacher should be an inspiration, not just a conductor of government policy. Every headteacher should know every pupils’ name.


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