HEALTH & EDUCATION|
7: Start your own school!
Liberalizing the supply of education
The problem: state domination
The school systems of many countries are dominated by state provision; but all too often that means uniformity, lack of choice, and poor performance. Is it possible to ensure that all children get access to a good education, but to bring greater innovation, quality, and convenience into its provision?
The idea: empower parents
The answer is yes. Simply involve parents and innovative educators in local schooling initiatives - by giving them the money which the state would otherwise have to spend on educating the same children.
Example: wonderful, wonderful education
Choice has been a part of Denmark's school system since the 1850s. More than 10 per cent of Danish school-age children attend independent schools, which include religious, minority and immigrant schools, and Denmark's celebrated 'free' schools. It is also possible for parents to transfer their children easily between different government-sector schools.
The state has given operating grants to the free schools since 1899, but a law of 1991 updated the system, guaranteeing them a per-capita government grant (see the chapter The Invisible Voucher). This is a set proportion of the cost of educating students in the state system, currently about 75%-80% (smaller schools receive more, to reflect their higher operating costs, and there are additional grants for schools which face special difficulties). The free schools have to cover any shortfall in their operating costs from student fees, fundraising and other sources.
The system is open to any non-profit school which can assemble 28 or more students, though most have between 50 and 100. They are run by a board of parents and others that is answerable to the education ministry.
Minimum curriculum requirements apply, and teachers must be paid the same as in the state system. But otherwise, the free schools have considerable freedom to innovate and set their own ways of delivering education and managing their staff and physical resources.
Some free-school buildings were bought from the municipal authorities, while some were started in small buildings donated by parents and local residents. If they want to expand or develop new facilities, they must find the money themselves from current revenues, borrowing, or gifts.
Denmark's 'free' schools are largely rooted in the country's nineteenth-century movement for freedom of education and religion, a principle established by law in 1855 and given constitutional force in 1915. In the 1960s, however, various progressive ('red') schools emerged in the cities, initiated by parents and espousing radical ideas. Independent schooling grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, rising from 8 per cent of enrolments in 1982 to 12 per cent by 1998; and parents are increasingly eschewing the state system in favour of these independent schools. Since 1990, over 150 state schools have disappeared, while in the same period around 50 independent schools have started up.
Denmark is not the only country to encourage diversity in the provision of education. In the Netherlands too, parents are empowered to send their children to government-run or independent schools, with the state paying 100% of the cost in either case. Top-ups are not allowed, so the independent schools are constrained in what they offer, although private sponsorship and fundraising for non-core purposes helps them provide a high-quality education.
In the United Kingdom, state control and finance of education does not encourage the establishment of new schools, but there are signs of change. Thomas Telford School, one of the best state schools in the country, has set up an entirely new City Academy in Walsall, and private companies and philanthropists have been prevailed upon to create more.
Assessment: model schools
The block-grant system makes it relatively easy for groups of parents to start a new school in Denmark. Sometimes, parents simply feel that the state system is not doing as well for their children as they would like. Sometimes, demographic changes leave local minorities poorly provided: Muslim, German, and other minority groups can and do use the system to change that.
Class sizes are typically smaller than in the state sector. Parents are also more closely involved, and most are willing to accept the sacrifice to top up an education system that they believe is superior. Schools manage a complex grant system to help low-income families.
The government benefits by providing choice in education, and allowing innovation to flourish in the education system, but at a cost less than it would have to pay to put the same students through a state school. And there is every sign that the state schools are now sharpening their management and objectives in response to the new competitive environment that was stimulated by the 1991 law.
For more information:
- See the Danish Ministry of Education at www.uvm.dk/eng or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. For English-language information, see the Royal Danish Embassy at www.denmark.org.uk.
- Harper, Malcom (2000) Public Services Through Private Enterprise, New Delhi: Vistaar Publications pp295-312.
- Justesen, Mogens Kamp (2002) Lessons from Europe (download PDF 143kb): The Dutch and Danish Education Systems: Adam Smith Institute (London) www.adamsmith.org.
- Pollard, Stephen (2000) A Class Act (download PDF 40kb), Adam Smith Institute (London) www.adamsmith.org.
- Flew, Antony (1994) Shephard's Warning: Setting Schools Back on Course: Adam Smith Institute (London) www.adamsmith.org.
Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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