I've heard two examples of right-wing managerialist utopianism recently. First, on the PM programme (29 mins in) Martin Stephen said that the way to abolish private education, as Alan Bennett wants, is to "make the state system so good that nobody wants to go to independent schools." Then today Sir Michael Wilshaw, in calling for state schools to improve their sporting education, says that the "most important thing" in achieving this is "the commitment and leadership of the head teacher."
I say this is managerialist utopianism because it underplays the importance of resources and overplays the role of management.
Sir Michael says that "high school fees and large playing fields are not a pre-requisite to success". Maybe not. But they surely help. I live a few yards from Oakham School's sports ground, and I can tell you that it's far better than state schools' facilities. This surely must matter insofar as it helps foster a culture in which pupils feel that sport matters and that they can excel at it; just look at the number of top sportsman the school has produced. I'll grant that a few exceptional teachers at state schools might be able to compensate for this huge advantage. But not everyone can be exceptional, and to suggest otherwise is utopian.
Mr Stephen is equally utopian in calling for state schools to improve so much as to match private ones. What this misses is that state schools have far fewer resources. Spending per pupil in state secondaries is £5353 per year. That's only one-third of the day fees (that is, excluding accommodation) charged by top private schools. Of course, three times the spending doesn't mean three times the quality - there are diminishing returns - but it is surely naive utopianism to think that spending doesn't matter at all. If it didn't, how come no private school is offering Eton-style results for fees of £5353 per year?
Maybe I'm doing Mr Stephen a dis-service and perhaps he wants more spending on state schools. But he didn't say so. And I've not heard of anyone calling for the £28bn per year rise in spending on secondary schools that would be necessary to take per-pupil spending up to the level at Oakham.
My point is that state schools are destined to be inferior to at least the best private ones*, and so inequality of opportunity cannot be eradicated whilst such schools remain.
You can react to this in three different ways. One would be to call for the abolition of private schools. Another would be to say that the system should persist, because the benefits we get from having a minority of expensively-educated people - some good sportsmen and a cadre of business and political leaders - outweigh the costs.
For me, both are inadequate. The former is illiberal, the latter just bollocks. But there is a third way. It's to accept the inequality of opportunity but to equalize the unearned good luck of going to a good school and the unearned bad luck of going to an inferior one by having a redistributive tax and benefit system**.
* Owen Jones' reply to Mr Stephen - that state schools are in fact the equal of private ones - seems to me odd. If it were true, it would imply that thousands of intelligent people are each wasting tens of thousands of pounds which is implausible. Insofar as I can tell, his claim is based on this OECD research (pdf), whose definition of private schools includes not just fee-paying ones but church-run ones. And it is inconsistent with other research which shows the pay-off to private schools is high and rising.
** Optimal tax theory suggests there might be a case for taxing ex-public school pupils directly. But nobody's interested in optimality.