Liberate the education system from the interfering hand of the state

Len Shackleton
Edenham High School Pupils Sent Home From Cash Strapped School
Endless intervention has created a sub-optimal education system (Source: Getty)

Some education stories in the last couple of weeks: the Supreme Court decision criminalising parents who take children on holiday in term-time; Jeremy Corbyn’s £900m plan for free primary school dinners, paid for by VAT on independent schools; education secretary Justine Greening outlining convoluted proposals to impose “ordinary family” quotas on new grammars.

Longer-term issues include excessive numbers of examinations, incompetent and overbearing Ofsted inspections, an ever-more-prescriptive national curriculum inflated by every media panic.

There is an endemic shortage of good-quality teachers in key subjects. 1970s-style trade unionism resists every innovation, while constantly deploring “cuts” to a sector in reality largely protected from austerity. Despite schools being well-staffed and teachers relatively well-paid by international standards, our performance in PISA tests is mediocre, while the OECD says that our long-tail of badly-educated school leavers are “among the least literate and numerate in the developed world”.

State involvement in education has not been a huge success in this country. We should rethink from first principles.

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Why involve government at all? It began in the nineteenth century with the unobjectionable principle of protecting minors. Some parents might be unwilling or unable to provide or pay for education themselves: this might deprive children of effective choice later in life. This could justify some compulsory education, though not the long years of forced schooling we have today.

Victorian advocates of compulsion did not envisage that education should be free to all: subsidies should only go to the poorest. They recognised that most parents could afford at least some contribution to schooling costs, and their spending power helped ensure that schools be responsive to their wishes – unlike today, when most parents must accept what they are “given” by government.

The gradual spread of incoherent subsidies to favoured schools meant others being driven out of the market. The resulting “shortage” of private or voluntary provision led to the 1870 Forster Act creating board (state) schools. A similar process goes on today in childcare, as government intervention drives out private providers.

Around the same time arguments were heard about alleged external benefits of education in discouraging crime and disorder, and as a means of stimulating economic growth as Britain’s lead in industrialisation evaporated. The claim that education stimulates growth has never gone away since, though evidence to support it is surprisingly weak.

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Another modern rationale for state involvement is that it can reduce inequality and raise social mobility. Again this is doubtful in modern conditions. Suppose we finally discover how to improve the educational performance of disadvantaged groups (who are, incidentally, more difficult to define than Greening imagines): would the outcome be greater equality?

In theory increasing the supply of educated people reduces the “rent” which educational qualifications carry in the job market and thus reduces wage inequality. In practice people with similar qualifications are differently motivated, and the wage distribution is so dynamic, with ever-changing patterns of demand, new skills and migration flows, that marginal changes in educational outcomes have little impact on overall income distribution.

Would there at least be greater social mobility? Does education promote wider social “churn”?

In a society where the number of jobs at the top and bottom of the hierarchy remain the same over time, children of the disadvantaged only gain if children of the better-off fall in status.

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In a society like ours, which is gradually growing richer, with numbers of higher earners increasing, this may be mitigated. But it is still the case that much-increased overall social mobility happens only if large numbers of children from well-off families do worse than their parents – something those parents aim to prevent by all means possible. Thus we are likely to have continuous genteel class warfare around “good” state schools, and without Maoist-style intervention little will change. Few parents, even of those currently disadvantaged, would really want it to.

Governments have played politics with education for decades, achieving little. We should greatly reduce the state’s role. Privatise existing schools, encourage cheaper private education on the lines James Tooley has championed, cut taxes for parents to allow them to pay for schools or at least revive the idea of educational vouchers, which can also be used to give poorer parents assistance. Scrap the national curriculum and allow competing qualification systems. Confine inspections to health and safety and child protection.

There are many other ideas which could liberate education if we stopped treating it as a never-to-be-questioned nationalised industry.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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