No, hard pressed parents can't win much coveted school places with the gift of a bottle of mineral water for their prospective schools but there is a link in the title nonetheless. The Observer today carries a story about parents of pupils in a high achieving west London state primary who are faced with rejection by all of their preferred secondary schools. The education lottery is becoming worse as the credit crunch forces parents who might once have opted for the private sector to search for appropriate places in the state sector. (There is, interestingly, another story here, to do with how well the state sector could cope with demand if the socialist desire to abolish private education were ever realised, but that's for another time.) Consequently, parents at a well run primary school like the one featured in the Observer's article, becoming more choosy about what they are willing to accept for their children, are finding that the 'top' secondary schools are massively over-subscribed. How willing are they to send their offspring to the more chancey secondary school, the one with poorer results and worse discipline? Whatever else the state is delivering, it has a long way to go before its secondary education sector matches the aspirations of the majority of taxpayers.
Over on the comment pages of the same paper, meanwhile, Andrew Rawnsley observes that the public finances are in such a state of ruinous deficit that, apart from giving any politician with a brain nightmares about how to deal with them, the public sector is under greater pressure than ever to 'prove its worth'. Takes a recession of near unprecedented proportions to produce this genius observation, but at least it is now on the table. And just how, at the moment, is the public sector 'proving its worth'. Rawnsley provides a slew of examples of its Alice in Wonderland mentality. Ofcom, for instance, has its own branded mineral water; 61 of Rotherham's council bureaucrats earn salaries in excess of the town's MP; the chief executive of the Stafford hospital whose standards of care were so comprehensively rubbished this week earns £180,000 a year. He could have gone on to examine the salaries of top echelons of the BBC, or the vast amounts of money spent on PR in every Whitehall department, but his column has a limited word length and you have to stop somewhere.
Both parties are confronted with a deficit crisis that means they have to redefine their approach to the public services. Neither can deny that a ballooning state has, over the past couple of decades, produced plenty of examples of waste while leaving parents bereft of a decent choice of education in their boroughs. Even if the choice isn't quite as stark as branded mineral water for a few extra decent state school places, it is time to see the debate about the 'worth of the state' back on the agenda. It is the old liberal conundrun writ large. The modern liberal wants to empower the citizens of the state, and believes it is legitimate to expand the state's role accordingly. But in expanding, they are recreating the uncontrollable state that their ideological cousins, the classical liberals, were warning about when it was focused on the power of an individual ruler. Despots and welfare states both demand large sums of unearned income in the form of taxes. It was a rare despot who used it to provide services of genuine public worth. Let us hope the same does not apply to his Hydra headed successor.