Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ban private schools? - taking away the xmas presents

It's been suggested that I have problem with these two cases:

1. Rich kids get big Xmas presents poor kids won't get. So, by my own reasoning, we must take the rich kids presents away to make things "fair". But that's ridiculous.

2. Some kids are taught to read etc. by their parents. Other parents are unwilling or unable. Therefore, we must prevent parents teaching their kids to read etc. to make things "fair".


Actually, I am not committed to doing either of these two things.

First, my concern is with what will impact on the opportunities of children to develop their native talents and abilities. Extra toys won't much. So I won't be taking the toys away.

Second, I agree that, where there's an unfairness (sufficient to warrant action to remedy it) between what x receives and what y receives, if we can realistically remove the unfairness by bringing whoever has less up to the level of whoever has more, then we should do that, rather than taking away from whoever has more.

So, in the case of parents teaching their kids to read, the solution to the unfairness caused by those parents who won't or can't is to help bring their kids up to the level of the rest, rather than prevent those parents who can teach their kids to read from doing so. This is achievable.

We can't apply this kind of solution in the case of the best private schools, however. We cannot all receive an Eton-quality education (it's unaffordable) and elite peer-group (it's statistically impossible).

Third, my view is that there is, in any case, a basic level of education everyone should receive. Everyone should be able to read and write well, and should be given the opportunity to learn. So I am not committed to preventing parents from teaching their kids to read and write on the grounds that not all parents can or will do this. That would obviously be a great injustice.

Possibly a harder case for me is where a parent provides lots of additional help with reading at home, beyond what most others are providing. Am I committed to banning that?

I seem to remember that in his excellent How Not To be A Hypocrite (a book on when it is and is not hypocritical for lefties to send their kids to private schools) Adam Swift (another one for banning them, I seem to remember) suggested that the difference between this case and simply buying your kid a place at a posh school is that the former is part of a loving, nurturing natural parent/child relationship, whereas the latter is not. The former would involve imposing rules on how parents should interact at home with their kids (clearly unacceptable) but the latter does not. That makes all the difference.

While I don't favour banning such extra help, I am not sure I agree with Swift's justification.

I do take Joe's point that it is unfair that some should have more native wit and talent than others - so are we going to do something about that unfairness too? (corrective brain surgery to dumb 'em down - or shall we let the IQ-of-75 guys become brain surgeons too?) Of course it is unfair. However, remember:

(i) if we deem it actionably unfair that the dim should be less financially well-off through no fault of their own, then there are other options open to us, e.g. we can simply redistribute wealth.

(ii) I am arguing on two fronts: moral and pragmatic. True, if a thick person wants to be a brain surgeon, we should not let him. Is that unfair? No, because he'll be crap at it and people will die. There's a pragmatic case for not letting him.

There's a pragmatic, and moral, case too for allowing all to achieve to the best of talents and abilities. That is in all our interests. Private education constitutes a serious obstacle to this. I am suggesting we remove that obstacle.

Finally, remember my analogy with universities. We would object, on moral and pragmatic grounds, if the top universities started flogging off all their places to the highest bidders. This would be deemed unacceptable. The negative impact such a policy would have is pretty obvious, isn't it (we don't need to do lots of studies and research, do we?)?

Well, I am simply objecting, on the very same grounds, to the very best schools flogging of their places to the highest bidders.

My question is: if you would object to the top universities flogging off all their places in this way, why are many of you so against my suggestion that we stop the best schools doing the very same thing?

6 comments:

John said...

Stephen,

"in the case of parents teaching their kids to read, the solution to the unfairness caused by those parents who won't or can't is to help bring their kids up to the level of the rest, rather than prevent those parents who can teach their kids to read from doing so. This is achievable."

That is a large claim - I'm not sure it is achievable, a point I think you implicitly acknowledge by raising the case of the parent who "provides lots of additional help with reading at home, beyond what most others are providing."

I have not read Adam Swift's argument, but your own presentation of it appears to me to be a version of the naturalistic fallacy - why would the division of labour accepted in almost every other facet of modern life suddenly be morally unjustifiable when applied to the education of children? What if my employment prevents me from providing additional help with reading at home: I will avoid providing any anecdotes from my own experience :-)

The claim that [providing a private education for your children] is not part of a "loving, nurturing natural parent/child relationship" appears (to me) a pretty baseless rhetorical ploy.

One other point that occurs to me - what if a parent pays for additional tutoring in the home, as many do. Wouldn't this also provide an unfair advantage? I think that you certainly would be committed to preventing such additional assistance.

"There's a pragmatic, and moral, case too for allowing all to achieve to the best of talents and abilities. That is in all our interests. Private education constitutes a serious obstacle to this. I am suggesting we remove that obstacle."

I still haven't seen the evidence that private schooling does prevent those who do not attend it from achieving their best - the over representation of privately schooled individuals in positions of power may well reflect parental values and ethos as much as opportunity - analogously, the largest 'contributor of offspring' to the Armed Forces are parents who themselves served in the Armed Forces; are we to believe that they are given an unfair advantage during recruitment and selection due to the background of their parents? Rather I would suggest the overwhelming reason that many serve is to continue the lifestyle to which they are accustomed, because they have been brought up to value the Armed Forces and they consider it a respectable career option. No doubt the values they have inderited from their parents do make them more suitable to the Armed Forces - such social conditioning applies in all walks of life.

Finally, remember my analogy with universities. We would object, on moral and pragmatic grounds, if the top universities started flogging off all their places to the highest bidders.

I'm sure that the weaknesses in your analogy have already been pointed out - but the fact is our universities are funded by the taxpayer. If Oxford and Cambridge started flogging off places to the highest bidder there would be an outcry - precisely because those places are publicly funded. But if a private college set up and started offering tertiary education to the highest bidder - even if that college attracted some very good lecturers - no one would bat an eye. There are, in fact, such private colleges offering tertiary education to those who can afford to pay - regardless of academic results. There is a very good reason why they are not widely known - they simply don't attract the best students and scholars.

Now if your proposal were, instead of banning private schools, to simply model our edcucation system on the meritocracy of tertiary education, whereby everyone would be streamed according to their ability (with, of course, the opportunity to change streams in light of performance) I think you would find this would quickly achieve your stated aims (equality of opportunity) without infringing on the freedoms of those who could pay of continuing to provide a private education (though one which would attract far fewer talented indivduals).

potentilla said...

I had most of the same thoughts as john. (And I see my point about the evidence base is still parked).

Well, I am simply objecting, on the very same grounds, to the very best schools flogging of their places to the highest bidders.

Apart from john's point about state- and privately-funded universities, I would also point out that "the very best schools" are not "flogging off their places to the highest bidders". Eton and the other few "very best schools" are highly academically selective. Doubtless if only the very brightest (whatever their wealth) got places, there would be lots of rich-but-not-absolutely-brilliant boys pushed out. But they wouldn't be rich thickoes. (Eton also has a lot of scholarship places).

Hellbound Alleee said...

Scary. Children already don't have any choice. Taking away more freedom that they don't really have doesn't seem too...seems downright creepy. Fascistic, dare I say.

We're already chained down to the whims of a monopolistic force. The chains are tightening every day. Tighten them more, because the monopolistic force's educational administration skills suck?

Again, it's like the last 100 years never happened. People have such poor memories.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen - do you ever read this man? Just wondered what you made of his arguments.

Scott said...

We cannot blame a parent for wanting a better education for their child, whether they achieve this by buying private tuition or by spending hours with their children reading. Swift’s response to this doesn’t seem reasoned out fully, take this instance;

I am a barrister; I work long hours so I can afford to give my children a good education. The best way I can do this is sending them to a private school. Hang on some would say, why not cut down your hours and teach your kids yourself? You could send them to a state school then. But if I felt my children would achieve a better education from highly trained professional teachers (which I most certainly would) I don’t think I could justify making that choice, and it's still a matter of "love."

But I think Mr Law recognises this problem.

Of course this isn’t the case for everybody that sends their child to be privately educated, but if we looked at Mr Laws model it doesn’t do enough to ensure this problem doesn’t occur again. If I was a rich family suddenly forced to cohere to this state run system I would simply arrange for my children to be taught after school, or even pay for a home tutor (I’m rather unsure where you stand on these?) Big money could be made by organisations supplying “supplementary learning” and as soon as top universities recognise (even subconsciously) these businesses we would start to notice the same problems.

Perhaps even worse, if a rich child is average in ability but receives external teaching one may presume some would achieve as much as those naturally talented children solely inside state education, or perhaps even more. Of course we would hope that the natural talent would show itself in the interview process of Oxbirdge, but this is in no means certain. Especially if part of the “supplementary learning” was teaching how to pass an Oxbridge interview.

True they may not be able to play the system, but what does it matter if they can act outside of the system anyway?

An alternative would be (excuse my metaphor) a “rope” style of learning as opposed to “ladder” style. If you imagine the “ladder” is what we have now, each child is put into a class based upon their age, they move up each year and are taught a wider range of subjects etc. they “move up a rung”. (Yes I’m aware it doesn’t always occur quite as simply, but ignore that please just while I show this idea) The rope system doesn’t have rungs, the faster a child is at learning the faster it moves up. The system is catered to talent, not to age or even riches. Now rich children could move up the ladder swifter at first, but if their natural ability isn’t as good they will slow pace. Hopefully this would give the children with natural ability but no money chance to catch up, or even keep up and overtake. Those without money and ability will still be taught up to a certain standard and age. The problem we have here is that it clearly divides by intelligence and doesn’t cater for the fact children need to be around children of there own age.


I must conclude that I cannot perceive a way of achieving a fair education system that wouldn’t have to step outside education to attain these results. To stop a child having extra lessons outside of a school imposes far too much on liberal freedoms for me. The problem lies in the ability to perceive the top 7% in the selection process I feel, and it is here that it is not only realistically viable we can alter it, but if we don’t the problem will keep occurring in a hydra of private school favouritism.

(I’ve never responded to something like this before so please excuse me if the language isn’t as clear and precise as it should be.)

Scott

name said...

Thanks to author.