Time To Take The State Out Of State Education

school notes

Michael St George argues for the removal of the State’s near-monopoly on education supply

You may remember educational campaigner Katharine Birbalsingh. She was the teacher who received a standing ovation from the 2010 Conservative Party Conference for condemning the culture of low expectations towards inner-city black and minority ethnic students found in the State education system – and who, soon afterwards, received the sack, in all but name, from her local educational authority employers for having the temerity to utter such an embarrassingly inconvenient truth.

A couple of weekends ago, in the London Borough of Brent, there was an Open Day for the Michaela Community School, the new free school which she’s setting up and which is due to open under her tutelage in September 2014. Inside at the Open Day, apparently, were lots of BME parents, asking eagerly: “How do we get our kids in here?” Outside, apparently, on the other hand, was a cohort of egalitarian, anti-education-choice activists and teachers, protesting vociferously against its establishment. Their argument, in a nutshell, was that of John Prescott against free schools generally: if it’s good, and lots of parents want to send their kids there, who will then go to the bad schools?

Yesterday, that same mindset was out on strike, in the shape of the combined NUT and NAS/UWT one-day industrial action, ostensibly about pay and conditions, but principally against the heresy that teachers’ performance should actually be assessed at all, and worse, that teachers’ pay should actually contain an element reflecting performance.

You might think that, for the main left-wing teaching unions to be protesting the introduction of any, even mild, performance assessment, to the extent of causing the disruption to children’s learning and parental working arrangements that a strike causes, might be a bit rich against the backdrop of mounting evidence that State delivery of education is failing. And you’d be right.

Because failing it undoubtedly is. The latest laying bare of this sad truth came only this month, with the OECD’s global league tables for educational attainment among 16-24 year olds showing young Britons features close to the bottom in almost every grouping. We’re ranked 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy and 21st for numeracy. We’re even one of the few countries where children’s literacy and numeracy levels are actually worse than their grandparents’.

The international PISA tables tell a similar story of underachievement, showing us to be mediocre at best in mathematics and reading skills.

Yet all these are the very skills we should be imparting to young people if we’re to equip them for work and career fulfilment in increasingly knowledge-based, and competitive, economies and societies.

Employers’ organisations tell of interviewing school-leavers presenting a clutch of certificates, yet barely functionally literate or numerate for the workplace. Universities report having to provide remedial courses for freshers whose knowledge obtained from qualifications even in their chosen degree subject isn’t up to start-of-degree-course standard.

The current State-delivery model of public education for the majority of all except those with the ability or affluence to escape it has failed, and is failing. There’s a host of reasons for this: the malign influence of 50 years fashionable “progressive” educational theory which elevates the development of self-esteem over the acquisition of knowledge – the disastrous comprehensive “one size fits all” experiment – the gradual dilution of academic rigour from both curricula and exams.

But rising above them all, for me, is the near-monopoly supplier of education delivery position conferred by the State on the State. Because, as is almost inevitable in all State monopolies or near-monopolies on the provision of public services, the delivery mechanism has suffered producer-interest capture: in education’s case, by a teaching profession without the spur of  competition, at best, and in thrall to an ideologically leftist egalitarianism not at all averse to mediocrity of outcome, at worst.

To improve our national educational performance, and equip our children and young people for life in the 21st century, we need to remove the State’s near-monopoly on education delivery. The inevitable shroud-waving from public sector vested interests should be not merely ignored, but vigorously rebutted: after all, when the best educational results disproportionately feature non-State actors like public schools, the State can hardly present itself as the sole repository of the highest standards and without whom educational Armageddon would result.

So how would such a system work? Quite simply. In a small-state model, public education can still be funded by the State out of central taxation, but, crucially, delivered, not  by a directly-employed labour force in State-owned and run premises, but by a myriad of competing private providers, of which the current and growing crop of free schools in effect is serving as the vanguard.

In practice, the State gives all parents educational vouchers, non-negotiable for any other purpose, but redeemable by parents at the educational facility chosen by them, not chosen by the State for them. For the school, more vouchers means more money – State funding follows the pupil, not the other way round. New entrants to education delivery can decide to generalise or specialise, according to the expressed or revealed preferences of their parent-customers. Educational provision becomes decided, not by the whim of State planners or influence by special pleading interest groups with access to them, but by popular demand – good schools flourish, expand, and replicate, while poor ones are allowed to fail and disappear.

The State’s financial role can be limited to channelling funding, and auditing its proper use: its oversight role merely to establishing a core curriculum as a minimum for all providers to follow, and a semi-autonomous inspection function, as now. Local authority control is limited to that exercisable for any type of business: supported by a presumption of planning consent unless a high threshold of objection is met, to prevent frustration of provision purely on local political-ideology grounds.

Statist critics would no doubt claim this is revolutionary: ironically, they might, unwittingly, have a point. The idea that parents are better equipped to make educational choices for their children than the State would, to them, indeed be revolutionary. But it’s also right. It’s time to take the State out of delivering State education.


  1. “The idea that parents are better equipped to make educational choices for their children than the State would, to them, indeed be revolutionary.”

    And needs to be proved rather than asserted.

    • Excellent, so you’re in favour of performing the necessary experiments to find out? A Free School in every borough will be a good first step and then perhaps an expansion in the number of State-funded Grammars, more Academy schools with a focus on a good general technical education, and maybe even some schools which offer a deep apprenticeship in particular technical fields.

      Oh, and more support for those who invoke the Education Otherwise clause of the 1945 Education Act and choose to Home School.

      We can keep Comprehensives for those whose principles or lack of interest in their children’s education make them a desirable alternative. I suspect they’d still be popular by default in areas where social mobility is equated with class betrayal.

      Sadly our educational establishment are less open-minded, preferring the dogmatic repetition of progressive educational mantras to the provision of a real life-improving education.

      • Why would you need to go to such lengths to demonstrate that parents, in general, aren’t better equipped than the state to make educational choices for their children?

        If you wanted to make an experiment, such as you suggest, even close to fair then you would have to compel the parent of every child entering the free school to be equally involved in its organization and decision-making. Otherwise all you would demonstrate is that some people think they know better and they have the time and resources to implement those ideas.

        It’s strange that you resent the ‘dogmatic repetition of progressive educational mantras’ yet you seem to neglect the fact that the majority of free school applications have come from religious groups.

        • You’re setting as a core axiom that The State (a composite entity with no personal awareness) has better knowledge of what’s good for children than their parents (who live with those children).

          However you’ve not explaining why that axiom should go unchallenged.

          Now would be the perfect opportunity to do so, don’t you think?

          • Within the state apparatus there exist institutions specifically designed to coordinate the education of children. These institutions are comprised of a high level of collective knowledge, experience and specialization beyond which any individual would be unable to compete, especially in terms of putting a child’s education in line with economic and social contexts. State institutions, as such, are uniquely capable of reinventing themselves to analyse complex situations and respond accordingly.

            A parent may know their child at a personal level but it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to put their child’s needs in the context of the education system as a whole. Also, as anyone who has had regular contact with parents will know, parents in fact often have an over inflated opinion of their own offspring and rather confused notions of what is best for them.

            Now if you would be so kind to respond to my query regarding your support for free schools and their largely religious nature.

          • I have no problem with Free Schools based on religious principles, including Socialist and Communist schools for those who like to worship faceless systems rather than a personal deity.

            What I do care about is that there’s choice. We may not always get our first or second choice, but for the vast majority that’s still better than having no choice at all.

            And competition. Without competition there’s little incentive to improve, nor any adequate way to identify successes from failures and adjust accordingly.

            It seems choice and competition are of little value in your preferred model, which is a pity. For all that technocratic systems have this lovely intellectual purity, the hypotheses underlying them run counter to the demonstrable maths and physics of complex systems.

            Firstly the finite upper bound on the efficacy of State Institutions is the competence of the actors operating within them. If every actor is wise then there’s the potential for wisdom, but assuming a standard bell-curve distribution the competence is increasingly likely to mirror the norm as the number of actors increases rather than the upper bound.

            Further, even given a high level of competence it’s still necessary for relevant individual actors to acquire information from their surroundings and to communicate both that information and their deductions based upon it with all other relevant individual actors before their competence can be utilised.

            A brain cell’s natural communication group is around 30,000 other neurones, for a human the group is around five other people. That’s a pretty small effect area.

            In an organisation of say a hundred people a classic I/O-bound scaling problem occurs, and many individuals will be engaged primarily in routing information rather than doing anything with it. This is true regardless of information technology deployed as data is only information for the system when it’s in the hands of someone who knows its value.

            Good solutions to the design of these kinds of problems favour decoupled (often competitive) distributed systems over centralised bureaucracies. Centralisation slows communications exponentially in proportion to the number of actors over the average number of connections separating them.

            At this point we’re still assuming that the problem domain being dealt with is itself linear and that noise can be discounted. Neither is generally true for real-world problems.

            So can State Institutions prove effective? Yes, if they’re very small and they’re focused on a bounded problem domain with reasonably linear characteristics. However this comes at the cost of a relatively slow response rate and a number of internal inefficiencies compared to solving the same problems locally.

            There is a tradeoff here. Reducing the number of communications channels will speed response, but it does so by reducing the resolution to which the institution can operate. Consequently the overall pattern of response will devolve towards random chance.

            In physics and information theory we refer to this as entropy, the intrinsic tendency of systems to lose structure in favour of complexity as time passes (i.e. events occur).

            As far as I’m concerned it’s the fundamental disproof of The State as an all-powerful panacea, and a good reason for favouring libertarian approaches to social structure.

            Sadly people who follow Marx seem to prefer dialectic posturing to this kind of rational analysis.

  2. For a free, state-free, education system to have any real chance of working, then people will need to re-conceptualise what ‘good’ teaching or ‘good’ learning look like. Basing conceptions of ‘good’ schools upon narrow criteria neglects
    most of the important elements of child development. If parental
    choice is to play such an enormous part in this competitive education
    market, then parents need to be sufficiently informed about different
    approaches to learning and development!

    Finland features highly in international rankings, and yet they have a distinctly
    non-competitive approach to teaching and learning, particularly in the early years. Imagine what OFSTED or parents would really think about a school that places emphasis upon learning through play until age 7. Imagine what a damming OFSTED report would be if an infant school in the UK placed greater emphasis upon personal, social and emotional development than reading, writing and maths.

    Parents are competitive creatures too, would they understand that if their little Jimmy wasn’t forced to be writing reams and reams all day every day at age 6, when his friends from other schools were, that it would stand him in a better position in the long run?

    We, in this country, unfortunately, have very strange conceptions of ‘intellect’, ‘learning’ and ‘good teaching’. OFSTED perpetuate myths that ‘rigour’, ‘ability grouping’, ‘formality’ and ‘rigidity’ are the indicators of a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. Whilst OFSTED are the henchmen using narrow conceptions of teaching and learning to control views of ‘appropriate’ education, then the state retains absolute control over what and how children learn.

  3. We’re 21st for literacy and numeracy. We’re also the 21st top country by GDP/capita. Seems we’re punching perfectly at our weight.

    • New Zealand does far more with far less, likewise the US has an awful education system. To call a generation with lower levels of Numeracy and Literacy than there forbears “punching perfectly at our weight” breeds complacency.

      • I didn’t say our education system is good or shouldn’t be reformed, I simply pointed out that we’re doing exactly as well as we should expect to be.

        We still seem to have this odd perception that we’re the richest country in the world.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here