Sunday, June 3, 2007

Ban private schools?

I want to raise a question that many will consider just silly. Ought we to ban private school education?

A while ago, Labour party policy wonks used to talk about "blue-sky" thinking. "Let's be prepared" they said. "to think the unthinkable. Let's put away our political dogmas and ideologies and consider what actually is going to deliver the best and fairest deal for everyone."

[Incidentally, "blue-sky thinking" always turned out to involve privatization - of the postal service, of transport, of social services, of health, etc. etc.]

Well, I want to try a bit of "blue sky thinking" here.

True, the suggestion that private schools should be banned - that all children resident in the UK should have no option but to attend state-funded schools - will strike many as ridiculous.

Many will say banning private schools is impossible. There are legal obstacles (such as European human rights legislation), as well as social and political obstacles, they'll insist. So it's not even worth considering.

Well, I am not so sure it is impossible. In particular, I suspect that if they majority of people in this country realized the extent to which their own children's chances of success are crippled by a small, wealthy minority intent on buying their own often second-rate kids a leg-up at others' expense, we might well find a rising tide of opinion moving against private education.

But in any case, whether or not it is impossible to ban private schools, it is surely still worthwhile pondering their legitimacy. Which is what I plan to do over the next few blogs....

7 comments:

Joe Otten said...

Surely educational advantage is a limited resource and the most optimal allocation of it arises if it is sold to the highest bidder.

Presently the state only saves the cost of educating the same children in state schools. But surely the privilege available is worth rather more than this? How much revenue is the state foregoing? How many more hip operations could be paid for?

Rather than finding ways for the state to forego even more revenue - condemning more pensioners to pain and immobility - shouldn't we do the opposite?

Now that's blue sky.

cagliost said...

Stephen said: "I suspect that if they majority of people in this country realized the extent to which their own children's chances of success are crippled by a small, wealthy minority intent on buying their own often second-rate kids a leg-up at others' expense"

I don't believe that the existence of private education reduces the quality of state education. Perhaps you could try to justify this? I think it's a leg up at no one else's expense.

Similarly to Joe's "Surely educational advantage is a limited resource". Why? (Friedman: "Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.")

cagliost said...

Instead, I think private schools should be encouraged. The government should give all children a voucher worth a fixed amount, which can be redeemable at private or state schools. State schools would cost exactly the value of the voucher. People could go to private schools and pay the difference, allowing more people to go to private schools (who otherwise couldn't afford it), and causing more private schools to be set up.

Morally, if you can give someone an advantage without disadvantaging anyone else, then I think you should. And if someone has an advantage, you shouldn't take it away if doing so wouldn't help anyone else.

"If I had a choice of living in a society where I was materially much better off than I am now, but was among the poorest, or in one where I was the richest, but much worse off than I am now, I'd take the first option. If I had children, it would arguably be immoral not to. It's absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty." (Paul Graham, "Mind the Gap")

Curiosis said...

To think that some people can, because of their privileged position, eat cake and drink wine while others are forced to eat break and drink water. How awful! We must act. We must ban cake and wine today. It is the only way to be fair.

The Barefoot Bum said...

There's a lot of variance in the way children learn, their strengths and their weaknesses, their interests and talents.

When the government runs things, it tends to create rule-bound, one-size-fits-all solutions. Consistent mediocrity is not so bad when you're talking about criminal law enforcement, health and safety standards, transportation and other civic infrastructure, even museums and "high" culture.

Mediocrity, however consistent, does not seem as attractive when applied to something as varied, creative more-art-than-science poorly understood as education.

I'm actually on the other side: Make all schools private (i.e. not government administered), competitive with regard to pupil attraction, and put the government in charge of regulating core curriculum.

Stephen's goals (as I understand them) could be met without doing too much violence to fundamental liberties by making government funding all or nothing: Either you accept only government funding, or you accept zero funding and 100% tuition. One might even tweak this concept by requiring the government fund the median of the tuition from zero-government-funding schools.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Having relatively recently put my two children through public school, I noticed two fundamental problems with the school situation in the United States.

The problem is not primarily the expensive education that the rich and ultra-rich get. This is a problem, though, in that even the middle class tends to concentrate almost all education resources in their own school, leaving a good proportion of students in districts with no funding at all.

It's important to note that just requiring all children to go to public schools would not mitigate this issue unless schools were funded by the federal or state governments instead of local communities. Also, public schools in the US are typically funded by property taxes, which tend to be regressive and unpopular.

The other problem that became strikingly apparent was the targeting of 100% of resources on the 50% of children near the mean. There is exactly one "kind" of educational philosophy in any given US school, set by the local school board and the State Board of Education. The one system is usually more or less well-chosen to be maximally effective, but one system can reach only so many children.

One of my sons has learning disabilities, the other has vastly more artistic talent than scholastic discipline. It became painfully apparent that the traditional lecture-homework educational philosophy—well-loved by governments because it can be precisely defined—was not the maximally effective way of teaching these kids.

I myself am not particularly well-suited to the lecture-homework educational model. I was extremely fortunate that I was able to attend a stellar private school (Brooklyn Friends) for my primary and early secondary education (grades 3-6, ~7 years old to 12) that tailored the teaching method to each individual student. I think I would have turned out much worse had I attended even a well-run suburban American public school.

The Barefoot Bum said...

(Fortunate, that is, by virtue of my mother's extremely hard work, not by my lower-class (cough White trash) family origins.)