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.