Analysis programme BBC R4 24 Feb 2014 – feedback

A splendid piece with excellent contributions from Barbara and Peter. (I spoke to the producer and gave him a lot of pointers, but couldn’t do the interview because of a 3-week break in Tenerife)

I was delighted that most of the programme was devoted to lotteries for school and university places. The case for university entrance by lot was well made, as a difficult but inevitable method of choosing between generally well-qualified applicants.

However no mention was made of the highly successful Dutch medical school entry lottery which has stood up very well over the decades. Pity!

Lotteries for school places (seats in the US) produced a less satisfactory result. The obvious fairness of lottery and the unfairness of nearness-to-school were demonstrated.

But the result of using the lottery, especially in Brighton, is deemed ‘unsatisfactory’ because the desired social mixing has not been achieved.

This is entirely predictable, because entry to the lottery is voluntary. Only the determined (middle-classes) go for it. If a representative outcome didn’t happen, at least all parents/children had a rough equality of chance.

Perhaps the most telling criticism was that mixing up by lottery destroys a higher value — that of social cohesion in the local community. Well tell that to Margret Thatcher who famously declared ‘There is no such thing as Society’!

In pursuit of her market-driven ideals, the Choice Agenda is said (eg by Milton Friedman) to give parents the freedom to choose which school their child attends.

Parents — well, the usual articulate, pushy ones — love Choice. Politicians like it too, because it seems like a handy weapon to goad lazy teachers into better performance, hence better educational outcomes.

The claim that choice (in the US it’s vouchers) raises educational attainment has been rubbished by the ‘freak’-economist Levitt of Chicago (yup, same department as Friedman).

The popularity of Parental Choice is not so much about better education (parents are not fooled). It’s much more about getting your child into a school with fewer problem kids as classmates.

But parents and politicians are not going to give up on the Choice Agenda. As we saw in last week’s Telegraph, there has been a ‘surge’ in the use of school entry lotteries.

The lottery may only be a palliative to fix the crack-pot Choice agenda, but lottery is breaking out all over — even more so in the US, where almost every week there are reports of yet another school entry lottery.

10 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Commonlot's Blog and commented:
    Interesting that everyday ‘choices’ about schools are seeping into wider population’s understanding about sortition.


  2. Conall

    Where there is genuine competition the free market is the most efficient way of delivering goods and services. Why is the delivery of educational services different?


  3. Keith, yes it’s true, economic theory says ‘the market’ will deliver the lowest prices for goods in the greatest abundance. It’s all backed up by some very impressive algebraic proofs. Unfortunately for the believers in this stuff, in reality, it hardly ever works! In the case of education it is difficult for the lay-parent to know which school will be best over the 5 or so years junior attends; schooling is consumed collectively (in schools) an aspect which economics can’t cope with.

    More fundamentally, education is a ‘merit good’ which Society (politicians) deem that we should have more of than most of us would be willing to pay for. Result: in every advanced state subsidised and compulsory education is delivered by publicly-funded bodies.

    In my utopian vision it wouldn’t be like this. I’m a big fan of Ivan Illitch’s ‘Deschooling Society’ but that’s a long way off-topic!


  4. I had lunch with Illich 20 years ago, very interesting guy. We published an article by him called “Health as one’s own responsibility: no, thank you!”

    I can’t comment on the algebra, but genuine free markets for goods and services have worked a lot better in practice than planned economies (ask anyone from the former eastern block). Schools are a difficult case but if everyone paid the full price and the state kept out of it the market would function a lot better than the pseudo competition created by politicians and bureaucrats.

    Needless to say, I disapprove of all utopian visions!


  5. I took a few courses with Illich when he was teaching in Penn State’s Science, Technology, and Society program. Back then he was spending half his time in central Pennsylvania and have his time at his research center in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Unfortunately, his cancer had already progressed quite a bit at that time, but he somehow managed to live a number of years after I finished my undergraduate studies.


  6. Perhaps Illich was instrumental in turning Peter and myself away from utopian dreams. I would certainly view myself as a poacher turned gamekeeper; liberal mugged by reality (choose your own preferred cliche). But it didn’t seem to work with Conall !


  7. > Where there is genuine competition the free market is the most efficient way of delivering goods and services.

    Sigh … facts please, not assertions.

    > genuine free markets for goods and services have worked a lot better in practice than planned economies

    Sigh … false dilemma fallacy.

    > I can’t comment on the algebra,

    Maybe going back to GCSE maths might be a good start. Then try the scientific method – it works :)

    > Needless to say, I disapprove of all utopian visions!

    At last – we are in agreement! You may be interested to read Black Mass by John Gray.


  8. > facts please, not assertions.

    Keith deals in dogma, not facts.


  9. I note that my “ask anyone from the former eastern block” did not lead to another exasperated sigh from our anonymous friend. Does she claim that the fall of the eastern block had nothing to do with the unavailability of free-market goods and services, or is this just an example of the sort of “dogma” that you expect to hear from capitalist lickspittles like me? Economists generally resort to algebra when they wish to ignore the evidence immediately in front of their nose. An obvious example is their inability to predict the crash of 2008, even though everyone who went down the pub knew someone who was paying their mortgage by credit card (and then transferring the maxed-out balance to another 0% offer).

    I’m a big admirer of John Gray (I reviewed Straw Dogs in THES), but haven’t yet got round to Black Mass. Note that one of Gray’s particular betes noires is Marxist utopianism, which he dismisses as a secularised version of Christian millennialism (not to suggest that “anonymous” or any of the frequent commentators on this blog are attracted to such an antediluvian perspective).


  10. @keithsutherland

    > I note that my “ask anyone from the former eastern block” did not lead to another exasperated sigh from our anonymous friend.

    Indeed it did.

    Unfortunately you don’t seem to understand that the plural of anecdote is *not* data:


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