Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ban private schools?

Here's a suggestion. Let's a have a voucher system with no top ups. A voucher is the only way you can purchase your child an education.

Let both the state and private firms compete for these vouchers by providing schools.

Schools can select by ability if they wish.

Let's add a further feature to this system - the value of the voucher is not fixed, but is dependent on the socio-economic intake of the school. The more middle class and well-off the parents are, on average, the less the voucher is worth. The more impoverished they are, the more its worth.

This last feature deals with the effect of people moving to the vicinity of highly middle class schools to get their kids in. That school would now receive less funding than the school with working class kids down the road. Take your voucher to that other school, and it's worth more. And so are the vouchers of the other kids at that school.

The precise difference in voucher value can be fine-tuned over time, to cancel out the effect of the middle-classes gaining an advantage by moving nearer to middle-class dominated schools. (In fact, by increasing the difference, we could ensure that they actually tend to flee from them.)

Incentive to run a good school? Private companies will extract their profit from the vouchers, competing with each other by two means - providing better schools so as to attract more pupils (so they grow) and by efficiency - the more efficient they are at providing quality education, the more of the voucher they can take in profit. But take too much in profit and standards will drop and parents will chose to send their kids elsewhere. So we have a healthy marketplace, if you like that sort of thing.

My guess, incidentally, is the state schools will drive the private schools out of business. But let's put it to the test!

12 comments:

Alex said...

So abandoning all pretence at equality in education? Seeing as all financial means for wealthy parents to pour money into their schools has been removed, how can you defend actively punishing the child's education because of the wealth of their parents?

Ignoring for a moment that these parents would have paid greater taxes to receive less of a voucher, inequality in state services based on financial status can be justified if it's something the wealthier can pay for themselves. Take school dinners for example, This would be akin to giving poorer students a portion and then giving wealthier students less of a portion and no means to buy the remainder.

My analogue breaks down if you try to work out exactly how much of that portion is necessary for a good education, is it different for the rich and the poor? and if so, how much? Do the middle class kids have by virtue of their parents and peer group enough food in their pockets to make up? Every child deserves a good education, but trying to work out an exact offset for the effect of being in a middle class family and peer group just seems unworkable and risky to me.

By all-means make the voucher worth more for the poorer, but give the wealthier a chance to top theirs up to the same amount. Caps are fine, as long as the system doesn't mandate that middle-class schools be poorer funded.

The Barefoot Bum said...

This plan (or something similar) would work to bring up the bottom of school funding. It would fail to bring down the top of school funding.

The problem is that, at best, the schools are only one particular mechanism (if they are a mechanism at all), not the only mechanism for the transfer of class privilege.

If private schools really are a mechanism to pass on class privilege, and if this mechanism were defeated, then the upper classes would simply create another mechanism. The schools, remember, were originally implemented to defeat direct inheritance as a privilege transfer mechanism; the wealthy simply co-opted the schools.

A.Buchanan said...

This does hinge on school being the only place that a child's intelligence is fostered. In the event of a level-playing field in the school system, the wealthier parents will still be able to afford more extra-curricular tuition and activities, or be able to buy more learning materials to support their child. If the schools are equal, the home environments aren't, and that's where children are going to spend most of their time. For the system to truly be equal, every school would have to be a boarding school.

Outside of simple wealth, the middle-class families are also more likely to have the skills to help their children with their schoolwork. They also tend to indulge in behaviour that is beneficial to learning, such as being proportionally more likely to be library users than poorer people. Even when not actively trying to boost their child, middle-class homes do tend to have more, and more stimulating, books and other media at home that might encourage a child's mind.

Joe Otten said...

I repeat: why isn't education the rich just as much a good thing as educating the poor?

I suspect that if you succeed in making the children of the rich ignoramuses and the children of the poor brilliant, then we will have a society run by ignoramuses.

Why is fairness more important than raising standards for everybody? Isn't education an unmitigated good for everybody?

georges said...

I'm trying to work out how your means-tested voucher system would work in practice.

The first question is, why do you think this would lead to a general improvement in the overall standard of education - however you choose to measure it? You haven't really explained why you think standards would rise overall.

Or is this not your primary concern? Would you be happy with a general degradation of education, just so long as its more equitably distributed? If so, spell it out!

I would have thought, if we want to improve educational output (however we measure it) we need:

1. to increase teachers' pay, in order to attract the best talent, and to improve the social status of teachers.

2. to increase school expenditure, on computers, science labs, books, musical instruments etc.

3. to reduce class sizes.

I suspect your means-tested voucher would work against all three. It would tend to reduce the amount of money available to be spent on education. The only real way to increase it would be by increasing taxes. Tax-phobic childless voters certainly won't vote for it.

Also, what happens to a child whose parents' income suddenly changes - eg the breadwinner gets made redundant? Would devious parents try to get their children enrolled while they were between jobs? The school could hardly expel the child of the unemployed actor, simply because he suddenly got chosen to be the next Doctor Who one term later.

georges said...

Which parents study OFSTED reports before choosing their schools? I suspect that it's preponderantly middle class parents who make the effort and do the research. This is an inequality that can't easily be rectified, and which will persist under your means-tested voucher system.

georges said...

The clever school heads would admit a few large families of poor people to get their voucher money. But they wouldn't let any of them sit exams unless they were certain the kids would do really well. If they don't sit exams they don't pull down the average pass rate.

potentilla said...

One thing is for sure, an enormous new industry would spring up to help people fiddle the rules both legally and hemi-demi-semi-illegally; and another of civil servants to decide how much the vouchers were worth (I love the way you say airily that this could be 'fine-tuned over time'!) and to measure parental income and so on.

I too would like to know why you think any of this would actually improve schools anyhow, especially as you have an overhead of the cost of educating 7% more children to start with (the ones currently being privately educated).

The easiest way rounf it, off the top of my head, were I a rich parent, would be to start my own school (that I owned but got someone salaried to manage) and run it at a loss. Other rich parents could become shareholders too! The government voucher money would just be a nice little extra. Under current law, it could probably be a charity and/or the losses would be a convenient tax planning arrangment.

Legislate to try to prevent this one, and something else would just come along.

potentilla said...

Anyhow, isn't this all getting a bit over-complicated? Your aim, as I understand it, is to get the majority of middle-class children back into state education (or anyway the same schools as the working-class children).

It seems to me that aiming for 100% of the "rich" parents is a bit pointless, because there will always be the ones prepared to go off-shore or home-school or something. The marginal benefit of pursuing them is probably not worth the cost.

But to get a good proportion of the "rich" kids out of private schools, don't you think that just going back to selective education would work? (Grammar schools, and for my preference direct-grant schools too). I think it would help quite a lot with Georges's problem too, since there would be a selection hurdle as well as the catchment area.

You would think it would be possible to invent a selection tehnique a bit more nuanced and less irreversible than the 11-plus.

Jacob said...

Stephen, how do you define the middle class schools and the working class schools? Is it just about how much money the parents earn?

Anyway, you seem to be proposing a sort of means testing system, which in other areas, such as pensions and tax credits etc. has proved complicated, degrading, open to fraud and error prone.

As an administrator of international regard, I think it is generally true that the simple systems works best, but the complicated systems appeal to those of an idealistic bent with little experience of how things actually work. It will eat up the state's, or whoever pays these private firms', money.

If you want to ban private schools then there will certainly be benefits to those that are already in state education due to the influx of some more good teachers and a higher percentage of motivated students to spur them on.

But do you really think that a bit more money will encourage teachers to want to teach in Hackney, where there are massive education problems due to the poverty and gang culture, rather than Surrey, where the state education is already good enough to let the 'native wit' types succeed?

Timmo said...

Joe Otten,

why isn't education the rich just as much a good thing as educating the poor?

I think you may be missing the point. Education is an unmitigated good for everyone, and every child should have access to a quality education. However, as a result of class differences, children born into poor families -- simply by an accident of their birth -- face substantial obstacles to their receiving a quality education. The goal is not to lessen the children of the wealthy (which would also be holding someone back on the basis of an accident of their birth), but to uplift the poor.

I suspect that if you succeed in making the children of the rich ignoramuses and the children of the poor brilliant, then we will have a society run by ignoramuses.

Why should the rich run society? In a free, democratic society each citizen participates equally with the other citizens. However, if only the wealthy have access to political power and to the education which makes it possible for an individual to participate meaningfully in the politics of his or her society, then we have not yet realized the dream of a genuinely democratic society.

John said...

"why do you think this would lead to a general improvement in the overall standard of education"

Good question, not yet addressed.

It may not be common practice anymore, but certainly when I was in secondary school (in Scotland) there already was a system which did very much what you propose. The per-capita funding to the state comprehensive attended by a good friend of mine was four times that of the state comprehensive school I attended. The schools were of a similar size, though mine was in a (relatively) affluent area, hers next to a sink estate. Guess which one provided the best exam results. Clearly funding is not the key issue.


Furthermore, you don't seem to have thought through how your scheme will be played out either by school administrators or the parents of prospective pupils.

"Private companies will extract their profit from the vouchers, competing with each other by two means - providing better schools so as to attract more pupils (so they grow) and by efficiency"

Schools are not normally easy to expand - they have expensive infrastructure requirements such as classrooms and labs. That is why so many good schools are already oversubscribed. The idea that a few more pupils will bring in enough voucher money to expand the school is one which might need a little more thought.

Also, what sorts of efficiencies could a school exploit in order to increase profit which would not have a detrimental effect on education? (I have some ideas about distributed learning and franchises, but can we truly apply such a model to education without getting a McSchool?)

Furthermore, since under this voucher scheme the most profitable pupils are those from the poorest backgrounds, just how are these prospective pupils to get to the school? Any private company seeking to turn a profit need merely buy up land in the most deprived area and start providing an educational service that undercuts the competition for 'value added extras'. Why do we assume those will be educationally beneficial extras, as opposed to simple proximity?

The whole thing appears a poorly thought out exercise in social engineering. By all means, provide more valuable vouchers to the poor - but restricting affluent parents from paying extra merely cuts out a large part of the incentive for improved education (I think we are agreed that those currently paying for private education or buying houses in the catchment areas for good schools are those most interested in a good education for their children). Isn't there some way to harness the product of that ambition rather than trying to prevent it?

Others have talked about possible gaming of the system - one more anecdote. Another friend, at university this time, was distinctive as a first year who owned both a new car and a mobile phone (at a time when such phones were rare amongst the working population), yet still drew a full means tested grant (her parents were divorced and she took the expedient of declaring the income of only her non-working mother). And she had received, of course, the benefit of private schooling.

Your voucher scheme would be trivial to game.