Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ban private schools?

I'll be turning to the question of why we should expect an improvement in education on the system I suggest in a separate blog. Here I just want to respond to a couple of points made by Jonathan.

Here's the first:

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.

This is anecdotal evidence, somewhat like arguing: my granny smoked forty a day for forty years, and she never got lung cancer, but Auntie Betty, who never smoked, did, so when it comes to lung cancer, smoking "is not the key issue".

Funding may not be the only issue, of course, when it comes to education. But then when did I say it was? I am quite sure that peer group, home background etc. all play a very significant part too. And the system I suggested is intended to affect these things too, by ensuring that we don't get all the posh kids at one school, all the working class kids at another.

The suggestion that levels of funding have little to do with the quality of eduction provided by a school is often made by defenders of private schools. But it is ludicrous claim. If it was true... well, let's save ourselves a mint by slashing the funding of state schools by half!

Jonathan, you also said:

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.

Good fu**ing grief. Is this really what you meant to say?

Jonathan also says:

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.

Yep, more anecdotes (a very "Daily Mail" style of argument, this). All systems are "played" to some extent. What we want is to minimize the playing.

Now notice that the system I suggest actually has the advantage of minimizing any playing of the system. In my system, the voucher's value does not depend on the parent's income. It depends on the income of all the other parents.

Let's use the tax system to determine income. To fiddle my system, parents will have to fiddle their taxes. Substantially. And collectively. For, there is no incentive for any parent to do so in isolation. If I fiddle my taxes to make myself look poorer, that won't effect the value of my voucher. Or the vouchers of the kids attending my daughter's school. So what's my incentive to fiddle, then?

There is none!

Rather than my system "not being thought through", it seems that this particular criticism is not well thought through.

As for schools not being able to grow, actually, they do so all the time. And companies setting up schools in this system can of course design for growth (like building a house in such a way that it can easily be extended). Not much of a problem I'd say.

14 comments:

georges said...

A voucher system has some features I like. Quirky or odd schools like Summerhill might be able to survive under a voucher system.

It's clear that you're not absolutely opposed to schools selecting pupils on the basis of aptitude.

But if you want to improve the general standard of education you're going to have to persuade people to spend more money on it. If you ban them from using their own income directly that only leaves tax revenue. So you're going to have to persuade people to vote for higher taxes. Good luck.

potentilla said...

I think you need to take the 'gaming' point a little more seriously. If you legislate to force people to do things they seriously don't want to do (as opposed to mildly don't want to do, like pay more tax), they will take every opportunity to get round your law, which tends to cause all sorts of other undesirable knock-on effects. And high on the list of things that nearly all parents take very seriously is fighting for their own children's interests.

Again off the top of my head, a likely scenario re vouchers (as opposed to getting round the no top-ups which I was talking about before) is that some schools would select by academic ability and/or IQ. Then they would say to parents "you can have a place for your clever child as long as your voucher money is worth at least x". The easiest way for the parents to achieve that is to move income and assets between themselves (to make one half of the couple suitably poor, if necessary). People are all taxed separately these days, even if they are married. And people care less about being married these days, and fathers might even decide they didn't mind not being on the birth certificate if there was some substantial benefit later in the child's life. Your legislation would then need to get into assessing vouchers based on whether the (putative) father shared a house with the children, or something.

If I can think of this stuff in a few minutes, it seems to me that well-paid professionals (ie specialist lawyers and accountants) would be able to come up with lots of variants with no problem.

FWIW, my view is that your variable voucher scheme would both be a political non-starte, as Georges says,, and absolutely impossible to implement in practice.

georges said...

If we're trying to improve educational standards, here are some thoughts:

Regardless of pay, it probably feels more rewarding to teach a child who could go straight to Oxford than one who could go straight to prison. We can't really change this with money or voucher schemes. More could be done to recognize the great teachers who have success in difficult environments - more OBEs, more media attention, more love. And more should be done to protect teachers from assault and to impose discipline on real troublemakers. My sister's husband teaches in a very rough school in Bradford. The biggest threat a teacher can make to a pupil these days is to say "I'm going to have to talk to your parents". But with some pupils, the response is to immediately pull out their mobile phones and dial their mother's number in front of the class - as if to say, "go ahead, speak to her, see if I care, and see if she cares".

There is an asymmetry. A disruptive pupil can drag a class down far more effectively than a brilliant pupil can raise it up. If we really want to help potential young achievers in deprived areas, we may have to take strong measures to remove the most disruptive pupils altogether and educate them separately.

John said...

Stephen,

This is anecdotal evidence, somewhat like arguing: my granny smoked forty a day for forty years, and she never got lung cancer, but Auntie Betty, who never smoked, did, so when it comes to lung cancer, smoking "is not the key issue".

No, but that anecdote certainly falsifies the claim that smoking forty a day for forty years will necessarily lead to lung cancer - and the analogous claim that your voucher system which provides greater funding to schools accepting pupils from impoverished backgrounds will necessarily lead to improved education is equally falsified by my anecdotal example.

Im sure there were other factors involved and I should of course have said additional funding is not the only, rather than key issue.

Good fu**ing grief. Is this really what you meant to say?

As it happens, no, but is that your considered response?

I think perhaps what I meant to say was that those currently paying for private education or buying houses in the catchment areas for good schools are those most motivated by their interested in a good education for their children. You may argue otherwise - perhaps more impoverished people make greater sacrifices. Anyway, it was poorly worded, I concede, and I won't defend it.

In my system, the voucher's value does not depend on the parent's income. It depends on the income of all the other parents.

Well I obviously don't understand how your system works, for which I apologise. I was under the impression your system awarded more valuable vouchers to those with the lowest income. Obviously, if that is the case there is a financial incentive for a school to take individual pupils with valuable vouchers, whether they deserve those vouchers or merely acquired them by gaming the system.

Therefore there is an incentive for individuals to game the system, and Potentilla provided one method.

I did use anecdotes - not to prove a point, rather to illustrate flaws in your argument. Perhaps, instead of implying I should be writing editorials for the Mail (my Mail reading father would be highly amused at the suggestion), you should try applying the principle of charity, and make the best of my poorly worded objections.

And its just John, by the way. Jon is the abreviation of Jonathan.

John said...

Stephen,

I have just re-read your posts. Is it the case that under your system individuals do not get vouchers, but schools get a set grant based upon, perhaps, the mean income of the families of all students?

I still think that would provide an incentive for individuals to pretend to be impoverished, but it might explain my confusion.

John

John said...

Stephen,

finally - happy to admit that I don't have any experience of how easy it is to expand schools. Is it not the case that popular schools in many areas are oversubscribed, or is that merely a facet of the current systaem?

John

georges said...

Stephen's starting point is indignation at the idea that people can buy their children a better education. For him it's sufficiently evil to require the state to criminalize it.

Pesumably he also wants the state to criminalize private medical insurance too. The principle is essentially the same.

Well, Politics is unpredictable. But the UK has already had Education & Health ministers in the 60s & 70s who were as Spartist about this as we're ever likely to see in the future. Tony Crossland famously said, "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England & Wales & Northern Ireland". Shirley Williams & Roy Hattersley agreed with him. They did their damnedest to try & get rid of private schools. But they failed.

There are no equivalent Spartists with a hope of becoming Education minister today. Labour lefties like Diane Abbot even choose private education for their own children.

Imagine trying to frame a law which criminalizes people for spending their own money on education or health provision - &, presumably others for receiving their money. Could the "crime" be defined in justiciable terms? Would a payment result in a custodial sentence? For the payer & the payee? Would the incarceration of "guilty" parents - while their children are taken into care - tend to rally the public behind the law, or make them think it unreasonable? How many police units would you assign to track down fee-paying/fee-receiving offenders?

Stephen Law said...

John

Apologies for getting your name wrong - I could have sworn it was Jonathan.

Also, apologies if a little intemperate - I was a bit wound up by the suggestion - said if not meant - that those who care most about their children's education are restricted to only those able to buy houses near good schools or go private.

Potentilla - The scenario you suggest is dealt with, in fact. Parents can indeed pretend to be impoverished (because lone parents, or whatever). It will have no efect on the value of their voucher.

What I have in mind is: its a voucher system, in which you can take your voucher to any school you please. The value of the voucher to the school is dependent on the socio-economic intake of parents on average. So if you are poor, but all the other parents are loaded, the value of your voucher is still lower, etc. Sorry if I didn't make that clear....

Of course, this particular voucher system is just an idea off the top of my head. I only provided it because Georges insisted. We can, if you like, drop the variable value feature. But then we will have rich parents moving close to good schools again. Just like now.There's no "perfect" system - each involves a trade off. But, despite being back-of-an-envelop, it does seem pretty good to me - it certainly avoids the examples of "gaming" that you have raised, and, as I say, it deals with rich people moving near good schools. To very substantial advantages, I'd say.

Stephen Law said...

John

It is a voucher system - parents get a voucher they can take to the school of their choice (if they can get their kid in). The value to the school of any vouchers they receive, including yours, is set by the average socio-economic intake of the school. So there's no point in you pretending to be poor. It won't affect the value of your voucher. Each voucher has the same value to the school, irrespective of which particular parent it comes from.

Georges

I wouldn't necessarily prosecute the parents who try to buy private ed. We could simply prosecute the "underground" schools that try to sell it.

But let's go back to my "private Oxbridge" example. Were Oxbridge to adopt such policies (essentially those of private schools) I guess we very probably would legislate against them on the grounds that they are socially divisive, socially damaging and grossly unfair. If a college did then illegally accept poorly qualified rich students for backhanders, it could be prosecuted (we would not necessarily have to prosecute the parents /student). So why not in this case too?

georges said...

So attempting to buy educational services would not be criminalized, but attempting to sell them would?

I think you're avoiding the issue by focusing on "poorly qualified rich students". There could be superbly qualified rich students, with brilliantly high test scores. But if their parents are contributing money to that school to improve the quality of educational service it can provide - say by reducing class sizes, buying it a better science lab, better teachers - the school head could go to jail?

georges said...

Now I think of it, the concept "poorly qualified" is meaningless for secondary school pupils. University is optional. Secondary school is compulsory. The only necessary qualification is the pupil's age.

Or are you taking it for granted that under your system all secondary schools will select pupils purely on academic ability?

georges said...

I notice too that your argument has slipped back a stage. You've previously insisted that you are not a crude leveller - that you're in favour of elites so long as they're meritocratic.

But you say the reason to criminalize payments for educational services is because they're 'socially divisive' - as if a meritocratic elite isn't also socially divisive.

If you propose to outlaw all 'socially divisive' practices, from wearing hoodies, burqas or Prada, to supporting the Pakistan cricket team the police will be very busy.

cagliost said...

Your system essentially says to rich people "you cannot have as good an education as poorer people". As in, it's illegal to educate your child as best you can.

You'll probably reply that you've designed the system so rich people can send their kids to well-funded schools as long as they mix with poorer people, i.e. poorer people get better-funded schools. But what if you live in a rich middle-class area? Are you forced to move away? Are you forced to send your kid to a school far away just so they can get a better education?

Are private tutors made illegal? This all seems unusually illiberal for you, Stephen.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, I'm new to this blog but seems pretty interesting, nice work.

This comment made by john:
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.

To which you responded:
Good fu**ing grief. Is this really what you meant to say?

I'm a little confused by this, are you saying that you believe all parents care about thier children's education or am I missing the point which I must concede is quite possible.