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School Choice in Britain

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Britain, as well as the United States, has suffered in recent decades from plunging educational performance, particularly in its big-city school systems. Like their U.S. counterparts, British conservatives have strongly advocated school choice as one way to remedy the decline.

But the debate in Britain over school choice is very different from that in the United States and is mired--as sooner or later everything is in Britain--in arguments over class and privilege.

In the United States, the school-choice debate centers on whether parents should have the right to send their children to the public school of their choice rather than the traditional neighborhood school and, more radically, whether parents should have the right--through various forms of voucher systems--to send their children to a private school, if they prefer.

Few American conservatives advocate private or public schools that restrict selection based on comprehensive student testing. And no American conservative would dream of allowing public schools to opt out of local governmental control in favor of direct funding by the federal government. In the United States, such a policy would likely be unconstitutional in any case.

But in Britain, conservatives have gone a long way to achieving these goals. In power since 1979, the current Conservative government already allows public schools (called state schools in Britain) to opt out of local governmental control and funding, choosing instead to be funded directly by the central government. Many schools have chosen to do so.

The policy, advocated by Conservative Prime Minister John Major and his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was introduced partly to offset the power of the big-city local governments, many of which are currently controlled by the opposition Labor Party and Britain's third political party, the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives also favor maintaining and expanding "grammar" schools in Britain, elite public schools that select students on the basis of academic ability. The Labor Party opposes any extension of academic selection in favor of public schools with comprehensive admissions policies, as in the United States.

This is the part of the school-choice debate that has aroused the most bitterness in Britain because it is rooted in the country's class-based history. Until the 1960s, there was no universal public school system in Britain of the kind that exists in the United States.

At age 11, British children took an examination called the Eleven Plus. Based on their scores, about 10 percent of children were assigned to public grammar schools. The rest were assigned to other schools that had far less prestige and much lower standards. Traditionally, the public grammar schools, as well as top private schools (called public schools in Britain), such as Eton and Harrow, produced the nation's elite. The other schools produced the nation's factory and clerical workers.

The Labor governments of the 1960s and 1970s swept selective testing and most of the grammar schools away in favor of the U.S. system of the comprehensive neighborhood public school which students, whatever their background or ability, were able to attend. But some grammar schools remain--championed as oases of quality by the Conservatives and condemned as bastions of class and privilege by the Labor Party. The Conservatives promise to expand academic selection if they are re-elected in the next election. Labor promises to abolish it.

Earlier this year, Labor's cause was dealt a bit of a blow. It was known already that Labor Party leader Tony Blair sent his children to a school that opted out of local control, a policy he opposed when the Conservatives introduced it. But when it was revealed that the Labor health spokesperson, Harriet Harman, had sent her son to a selective grammar school, the House of Commons erupted in fury--mostly directed at the Opposition leader from his own Labor lawmakers.

Ms. Harman's head was demanded as the minimum price for her betrayal of class as well as political loyalties. Predictably, Prime Minister Major had some fun at Mr. Blair's expense. "You certainly can't sack her because all she is doing is playing follow-my-leader," Mr. Major told the Opposition leader, referring to Mr. Blair's decision to send his own son to a public school that opted out of local control in favor of funding from Mr. Major's government.

Ms. Harman survived the storm of criticism. But the debate over school choice British-style is far from over and is likely to heat up dramatically as Britain moves toward a national election, which must be held before the summer of 1997.

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