Why flat pack education policy isn’t an option

It’s been an acrimonious week in Westminster. Peter Mandelson and George Osborne have begun the messy business of opening up ideological differences between the two parties in advance of the election.

But the exchange didn’t open up new differences on policy. As Fraser Nelson has pointed out, George Osborne doesn’t yet have the policies that match his radical vision for reform.

New policy ideas will be needed. But the wonks at Conservative HQ shouldn’t get too excited. Chances are that the ideas that will transform the UK will have already been dreamed up somewhere else.

Policy development has been outsourced. But it’s not outsourcing as we know it. We get our technical support from low-cost India, but our policy ideas from big-spending Scandinavia.

Scandinavia has exerted a huge influence over policy. We owe our active labour market policies, approach to childcare and merged prison and probation service to the Nordics.

Michael Gove has gone further. He has promised to revolutionise the education system based on the Swedish school choice model (minus profit-making companies).

And now one of the summer’s must-read books also wants to turn Stockport into Stockholm. The Times has described it as “a book with a big idea, big enough to change political thinking”.

The Spirit Level is a compelling read. It marshals a huge amount of data to show that societies with unequal income distribution are bad for almost everyone living in them.

So far so good. But it goes on to say that the UK could solve its inequality problem by imposing Scandinavian levels of taxation. This is a red herring.

Income inequality follows on from value in the labour market. Swedes command similar pay packets because they have similar skill levels. It’s skill levels, not tax levels, that are important.

Introducing a Swedish tax system won’t increase equality. That’s bad news for those on the Left looking for a quick fix. But the Right should also be cautious about transposing Scandinavian policies without modification.

Gove has argued that introducing Swedish-style school choice won’t increase inequality. It’s certainly true that in Sweden, both poor and better off people seem to have done well out of the system.

But, as Jonathan Power has argued, there is a belief in Sweden that a person shouldn’t prosper at the expense of the less fortunate. In contrast, the UK is more individualistic.

We need to hear how Gove will ensure that the disadvantaged don’t get left behind in a system based on choice. Otherwise, there’s a risk that current middle-class monopoly of good schools will only get worse.

New Labour recognised this challenge and came up with the (pretty ineffective) school choice advisers. The challenge is for the Conservatives to dream up something better.