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I remember noting over many cohorts of students applying for admission in Cambridge that students from some minority ethnic backgrounds were particularly keen on professional or pre-professional degrees and, correspondingly, rather more reluctant to do any other degrees. One result was an unrepresentatively high number of students from these minorities in professional degrees, presumably to be reflected in the future composition of the relevant professions. Should we worry if some professions have an unrepresentatively high or low number of practitioners from certain backgrounds? Should we seek to correct for choice by preferential admissions—for example, by admitting non-minority students and students from other ethnic minorities on the basis of lower achievement—or should we respect choice and provide equal treatment for diverse applicants by continuing to select only on relevant criteria?

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Student choice and fair process—that is, equal treatment on the basis of relevant criteria—are vanishingly unlikely in themselves to produce representative cohorts of qualified students and professionals in each degree, university or profession. In a diverse society, fair treatment cannot produce representative outcomes.

Another case in which choice has led to less representative results can be found in the study of languages in schools in England. Since the abolition of the GCSE modern language requirement in 2004, the proportion of pupils in maintained schools who take a modern language beyond age 14 has fallen. After four years, by 2008, the total number studying French at GCSE had declined by more than a third, from 318,000 to 203,000. This was not compensated for by a very modest numerical rise in some other languages.

The decline has, of course, been uneven. There were 27 schools in England where no pupils took a GCSE in any modern language in 2007. Meanwhile, pupils in independent schools, whose parents presumably saw career and cultural advantages in speaking other languages in a globalising world, have chosen to study more languages for longer. This has altered the representation of pupils from maintained and independent schools on language degrees; it is likely to alter their representation in many lines of employment. So here, too, choice is going to lead to less representative results.

So far, the Government’s response has been to encourage language initiatives in primary schools and to promote languages, hoping to nudge, as we now say, the choices that pupils make. However, if we really want more representative outcomes, we would do better to reinstate the GCSE language requirement and teach languages better, rather than trying to nudge the choices that pupils make in the forlorn hope that they, like their mothers, will end up making the right choices. That, of course, would produce equal representation of all groups among those studying languages.

It is worth asking whether representative participation is an important social aim for which we should be prepared to sacrifice both choice and other equalities. Perhaps the best case that can be made for it is that it matters for policy-makers who are looking at participation levels for some benefit or activity that is expected to be universal. Here population-level evidence is, I think, useful. For example, the United Nations Development Programme looks at the relative proportion of boys and girls in primary education in different regions. However, from the point of view of the little boy or girl who loses out, it does not really matter whether boys or girls are doing better in their region—they have lost out. Public health policy-makers also need to look at the social composition of those who do not receive immunisation. However, information about the unrepresentative composition of the group of children being immunised is, frankly, of little value to the children who lose out or to their parents. What matters to them is substantive equality of treatment.

There are many other choices and equalities that could be used to illustrate these issues. I believe that my noble friend Lord Krebs will say rather more about some of the public health issues. The educational examples that I have mentioned suggest to me that there are many ways in which we can seek a coherent

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combination of choice and equality for individuals, but we cannot coherently aim to secure what is called a representative participation in all lines of activity without restricting either choice or equality for individuals, or both.

I hope very much that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the Government’s aim in bringing forward the single equality Bill will be to eliminate discrimination on irrelevant grounds and correspondingly to require discrimination on relevant grounds rather than pursuing the will o’ the wisp of securing representative equality, which is achieved either by restricting choice or by neglecting substantive equalities. I beg to move.

3.03 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, it is a formidable task to follow the noble Baroness, who has a distinguished career as a philosopher, when I am a mere economist. But since economists have sunk capital into the notion of choice, I thought that I had better speak in this debate. Before I go any further, let me say that a House of Lords that can hold two debates—one on climate change and one on the level of inequality—is a House of Lords worth preserving.

The noble Baroness raised so many questions that I have a problem sorting myself out. She tried to say that choice per se in a diverse society may lead to inequality. The choice that mothers are likely to have may lead to problems because they may not make the right choice. She then said something very cogent, with which I agreed quite a lot, on the notion of representative uniformity. To go for a representative target using certain broad classifications of gender, race, or whatever, is not likely to be helpful in achieving the goal of equality which the Government have set themselves. Along the way, she made a number of other cogent points.

With regard to the bare bones of Economics 100 notions of choice, given that the distribution of endowments may be, and often is, unequal, economists would argue that, given choice, each person can move to a better position than what the initial endowment gives them. Inequalities are not altered very much by that, if at all, but the level of individual satisfaction or utility is enhanced thereby. That is all that economists ever say. One of the questions about the notion of equality is the end-state that we want to achieve. By what measurable or at least comparable indicator would we judge whether we have achieved equality?

What struck me about British society when I arrived here 44 years ago was the strong notion—partly due to the influence of the Second World War, a very egalitarian experience for a very unequal society—that uniformity is equality. In the field of education, which I know something about, a lot of debate around equality in the choice of subjects and schools is hampered by the fact that people do not discuss the prior condition that career paths are very narrow and very few. We all take it for granted that the only high road to advancement in life is GCSEs, A-levels, university and onwards. If that is the only path involved, certain comparisons are indicated. The first would be to question the narrowness of the path. Why should there be only this path?

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The noble Baroness gave an example, which I cannot recall exactly, about how a child will never become an engineer if he or she does not do mathematics at school. That would be astonishing to an American; in America there are other paths to becoming an engineer if you have not done maths at school. Why should children be locked in? In our search for equality, we have to examine whether the structures we have set up, which are an inheritance from the past, are too rigid.

Very few universities and other higher education institutions give a choice. The whole debate about working-class children going to Oxford or Cambridge is, in my view, futile. The point is not that a working-class child should go to Cambridge, Oxford or the LSE but that he should go to where would suit him the best. That may not be Oxford or Cambridge; it may be a further education college, a higher education college or a polytechnic. It may even be that if a child went to Oxford or Cambridge, that child would be stunted because he would have been much better off going to Essex, Warwick or Southampton.

We have to change our notion that there are right royal roads, and only a few of them, to advancement. We have to allow society to open up and create alternatives. The end-state should be that each person—each child—should achieve the maximum they can. Since that maximum is not achieved at the age of five, 11 or 18, we must constantly offer them choice across different facilities and types of education. We must do that even for mature students and late developers, because you never know when somebody might develop—it might even be at 80 or 90. We are talking not just about an individual’s choice on given subjects. Society has first of all to ask whether the number of alternatives we offer is not too limited to begin with, thereby reinforcing inequalities.

The noble Baroness made other cogent points on representative equality which I entirely accept. There is great debate today about reserving jobs in government or places in higher education institutions for people who are deprived by social origin. Again the question is: should you judge an individual by membership of a certain category—you cannot avoid being a woman or black, for example—or should you judge individuals qua individuals? It is often the case that one member of a community which is on average deprived may be less deprived than another member of a community which is on average better off. Therefore, we do not want to subject people to a community label. Most importantly, when women are assigned to communities—a woman can be described as a Muslim or a Hindu, for example —it may often lead to greater disadvantage than if one just treated the person as a person, because the Muslim or Hindu society in question may have its own forms of discrimination which we may want to overcome.

The subject of our search for equality is the individual; it is not communities. We go by communities because they are rough indicators of where discrimination lies, but we have to remember that the subject is the individual and the end-state is how well the individual achieves the maximum potential that he or she can. The measuring of maximum potential may lead to problems, and involve categories such as happiness or income, but we

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have to be absolutely clear that in searching for equality, we do not restrict either the subject of our search or the end-state by which we define equality. In both, choice is crucial.

3.13 pm

Lord Patten: My Lords, it is challenging to follow such a distinguished philosopher as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in her forensic examination of what choice means and does not mean, and no less challenging to follow an—albeit self-styled—“mere economist” such as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in his economic views on an area where, as he said, the economic profession has sunk so much capital. I wish rather to approach this debate from my own personal beliefs, which underpin my political beliefs. I apologise for introducing politics into the debate. I hope that it will not be judged as the equivalent of spitting in church. I intend merely to clear my throat on the issue.

I very much agree with the noble Baroness when she states in her press release from the British Academy—it is the first time that I have ever seen a press release from the British Academy; it was a treat to read it—that choice has become a mantra for all three political parties and it is widely assumed that more of it will reduce inequality. I am glad that she and her noble friends, such as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, have chosen to put this contention under the microscope today, because it is critically important for us all to re-examine what seems to be settled at any one time, and periodically to test the mettle of accepted social wisdom. The noble Baroness has done that clearly today and I thank her for it.

That said, I welcome the apparent consensus, for I am a true believer in the benefits of choice. Indeed, if I may be seriously outspoken, perhaps I may say that I am also a true believer in the benefits of competition and would like to see a piece of suitable statuary celebrating competition in Parliament Square outside. However, I said that I welcomed the “apparent” consensus on the benefits of choice—it seems unimaginable that there might have been such a consensus back in the mid-1970s—because the commitment to choice seems only skin deep among some political parties.

Truer colours will be revealed to us all if the electorate—it is up to them—choose a Conservative Government at the next general election, which will have to be held very soon. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that, should there be a Conservative Government, the sound of cracking consensus will be as nothing compared with what comes afterwards in terms of the great explosions from the trades unions in the public services, whether in healthcare, social care or education. They have often just paid lip service, or been forced to pay lip service, to the ideas and rhetoric of choice that were laid on them by the once-reformist new Labour movement. We now see only the dying embers of that reformism—in the repetition of language, and only language, and all that talk of markets, competition and choice.

Choice was adopted by the Labour Party for a while, but it used to be the preserve of the old enemy, the Tories. After the next election, to the great delight of the trade union leaders, the Tories may become the

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new enemy all over again. There will be a lot of early trouble, with demands for the abolition of performance tables, transparency, public information and all the rest, all under the protective and seductive cover of the motif “trust the professionals”. I smell a lot of trouble coming for a new Government, who will be left holding this fast-vanishing consensus. Support so unwillingly coerced during the Labour years will simply crumble if the years turn Tory—but who is to say on that?

I have looked with growing surprise at the Government’s statements on equality, as summed up by something called the Government Equalities Office, particularly in relation to the forthcoming equality Bill. The Equalities Office states:

“The Government is committed to creating a fair society with fair chances for everyone”.

Setting aside the perennial problem of the definition of “fair”, I simply do not think that Governments can ever undertake to create this or that form of society. That is neither the matter nor the business of Governments. There also seems to be quite a bit of muddle in the thinking of the Equalities Office, which, with respect, must reflect ministerial thinking, because the Equalities Office is only the mouthpiece of Ministers. It says on its website—and I recommend noble Lords to spend a moment or two on the website, as much innocent fun can be had reading the words there:

“For society to be fair people must have the chance to live their lives freely”.

I say “hear, hear” to that, because this freedom demands choice by individuals—not the so-called creation by government of some particular form of society in this or that particular shape, which was absolutely explicit in the preceding sentence.

That is probably enough amateur textual criticism from me, except to award a blindingly obvious prize to the triumphant conclusion that:

“Factors like family background, educational attainment, where you live, and the sort of job you have can influence your chances in life”.

Who could dispute that innocent assertion from those in the Equalities Office labouring on behalf of Ministers? Yet, in the end, the most powerful driver to help people—and I promise that this is the last time I shall quote the Equalities Office—to,

as the Equalities Office wants, is the freedom to choose.

That brings me to my third and last point, in praise of choice—recognising that just as men and women are imperfect, so is choice imperfect in the way it plays out sometimes, as the noble Baroness said. Stating that is to recognise that absolute equality is not only impossible to achieve but probably undesirable because of the tiresome unfairnesses inherent in people’s different physical and mental skills.

Can the existence of choice be bad? Can the exercise of choice be bad? I do not think that the existence of choice can ever be bad but the exercise of choice can be, if it leads to personal or social evil and if the decision is to choose to do something that is wrong, not something that is right. Otherwise, it is my belief—it may be an emotional belief that is not well founded—that, at every turn, the more choice there is, the more rungs there are on the ladder to take one over many different

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pathways. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in his assertion that we should value all different pathways to all different institutions in further and higher education. If Governments—or Cross-Benchers, for that matter—try to limit choice, they attempt to fetter free will under the law. Limit choice and the free society is limited. The shackles must never be put on free will.

I never like using that most overworked phrase, “the human right”, which is fired from the hip of almost every relativist self-appointed legal panjandrum at will and, seemingly, just means what they last thought it meant the last time they thought about it. Everything from choice of friends through to the choice of schooling and healthcare, which are subjects central to this debate, are fundamental attributes of individuals. While the midwife cited by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, was absolutely right that the right choice is imperative, choice has now opened up opportunities, however imperfectly, for hard-working families to choose where to live—no longer on the council estate nor in the tithe cottage—just as a century ago or so, little by little, the opportunities came for the poor to get a better and better education to get to the great universities.

There have been some revolutionary changes in the past. Perhaps I may—daringly, in these straitened times—mention the financial services world as an example of the sudden freedoms post-big bang in the City of London in the late 1980s that allowed much more choice in who could enter that hitherto closed world, which had been pin-striped and totally male, and trade there. More choices were suddenly given by that self-generated explosion.

Give them choice and even the most apparently disadvantaged will then have the opportunity to improve their life chances. Whether they are successful or not, I cannot say—but they should never be patronised or engineered. Hence my dislike of Governments shaping or creating some form of society. They should never be peered at as if they were rather interesting anthropological specimens. They should, rather, be given the choices that actually power life’s chances.

3.22 pm

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the title of this debate today referred to,

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, for bringing the subject to this House, as it is important and interesting, and for her very thought-provoking introduction to it. Equally, as a fairly simple economist, I interpreted the title in a somewhat different way. The three speeches that we have heard so far seem to have questioned to some extent what we mean by choice and inequality. How do we measure inequality?

Confronted by this title, I turned to Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty. I will read a quotation from his extended essay. He said:

“The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as he or they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples”.

Because my brief in this House is to speak on education, I was particularly interested in the issue of choice in education. I shall be picking up some of the remarks

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made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in relation to equity in education. I also was interested in the health issue, which is in a sense another public service issue.

The conclusion I take from Isaiah Berlin is that there are many trade-offs to be made in this world; you cannot have pure choice or pure equality; these are to some extent competing ends; and we have to take decisions as to how best to make choices, or, indeed, to decide between those competing ends.

I also want to turn the question on its head to some extent and look at the issue of equality and choice—how far can you make choices if there is extreme inequality? I shall come back to that at the end of what I have to say.

Let me start. I wanted to look at the whole issue of education. As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, noted, the British Academy press release said that there has been a consensus across all parties—more recently including my own—and that the pursuit of choice in education by offering a wider range of schools and a greater diversity of choice and allowing parents to choose and pupils to choose, will in itself improve performance in schools, which in turn would raise the game of all schools and offer a better quality of education to all. Thereby, since in many senses it is agreed that education is a key to equality, promote greater social mobility and greater equality.

Of course, it has not worked out quite like that. First, for the market to work people need to be well informed. As we all know, some—the better educated and the more articulate—make it their business to be better informed than others. Good schools are over-subscribed and a rationing process has been introduced via admissions criteria. Again the better informed know how to work the admissions process. The Government step in to lay down a common set of rules and to try to redress the balance by appointing choice advisers to the less well informed. We are back to the midwife who says that as long as they make good choices—choices I would suggest—they are making the right choices. Economists describe this as market failure due to the asymmetries of information. Some are very much better informed than others.

Secondly, the market works more slowly than theory would imply. It takes time for successful schools to expand while unsuccessful schools wither on the vine. Again, those left in the unsuccessful schools are those who, for one reason or another—information, transport or a life dominated by other issues such as ill-health or poverty—cannot easily switch their children to the more successful schools. Choice in this respect leads to greater, not less, segregation.

Anecdotal impressions are confirmed by the evidence. A paper published in July 2007 by the IPPR summarised the evidence from five studies and found that although there seemed to be some correlation between school competition and pupil attainment, the causal link was not there. In other words, competition was not necessarily the driver of the improved performance. What did seem, however, to stand up was the link between social segregation and polarisation of results: schools full of high-attaining pupils further pulled up their results; schools full of low-attaining pupils went further down. Moreover, the shift towards independent governance,

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academies and foundation trusts was exacerbating this trend. Work by the Sutton Trust showed that of the top 200 comprehensives in England, 70 per cent were their own admissions authorities, compared to only 31 per cent across England as a whole. Within those schools only 5.8 per cent of pupils qualified for free school meals, compared with an average of 13.7 per cent in the areas that they represented. These findings were reinforced by a recent study from the London School of Economics. Its authors, Sandra McNally and Romesh Vaitilingam, sum up the conclusions as follows:

“Taken together, these findings suggest that simply offering parents a wider choice of schools and forcing schools to compete does not seem a remedy for poor standards in education: such policies might also exacerbate inequalities”.

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