Pisa or Babel?

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babelPeter Wilby writes a broadly convincing argument in TES against taking the Pisa results too seriously. As the former editor of the New Statesman suggests, comparisons can be misleading. A few potential sampling errors are pointed to, some more convincing than others, but whatever the merit of each, overall his thesis is persuasive. For anyone familiar with the fallibilities of the sciences, none of this should come as too much of a surprise.

Mr Wilby is hoist by his own petard, though. After much sound reasoning he ends by using the Pisa results to attack the US and neoliberalism. Quite why he does this after everything written before is surprising to say the least. I think as a rule one should try not to contradict oneself in the same article, while contradictions between articles should always be forgiven. After all, people have been known to change their minds.

Yet Mr Wilby’s point stands. With headlines and policy cobbled together from some tentative results, it would have been much better if these tests had not received so much attention, or perhaps not taken place at all. Like so much public policy, education has lurched from one failed silver bullet to the next. Today it is teachers’ qualifications, while yesterday it was class sizes. The behemoth of the state is tying itself in a knot, leaving no room for innovation. That governments still have such a uniform model of education within its borders is a sign of how stilted things are – Pisa is a sign of how far we have to go.

Rather than rely on the tentative, much better to build upon surer ground. There can be no doubting that the private sector does stuff better and cheaper than government run and regulated stuff – therefore, in education we should keep government to an absolute minimum, only interfering when we can be as certain as we can be that we are not making things worse.

The road to freedom

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There is likely no book on the market that better sums up the state of the British education system than Chris Woodhead’s A Desolation of Learning. It opens with a damning tsunami of proof on the dumbing down of exams and ends with a thoughtful conclusion entitled The Road to Freedom (a nod to an essay by Iris Murdoch, not Hayek). Everything in between is just as good.

Written prior to the transfer of power from Balls to Gove, the critique of both is still relevant to the current debate. Take his references to Oakeshott for example. Despite Gove’s unreserved and worthy personal intellectualism, the government nevertheless often defines education policy as an economic public good instead of intellectual private good that happens to result in unforeseen public benefits. The distinction is important because the former has been used to justify increasing government interference for social and economic ends impacting unduly upon the role of the educator and those to be educated.

Every person I speak to involved in education policy is asking themselves the same question right now – when will Gove come out and confirm or deny whether free schools can be run for profit? Woodhead addresses this issue straight on this book and offers a robust defence of for-profit schools for the delivery of education (and is not afraid to support them over the charitable model). On this he writes: "where there is no profit motive there is no incentive to expand capacity. It is more congenial to avoid risks and challenges of expansion and instead to channel ever-increasing surpluses into ever more elaborate facilities, which entrench the elite nature of the institution. Surpluses, which could achieve high returns on investment if re-invested in capacity creation, are used to build state of the art, five star facilities for the tiny minority of pupils whose parents can afford the highest fees. It is hard to think of An ownership system less likely to expand capacity and widen access." So true.

Reflecting upon education policy since the book, I think Woodhead strikes the right tone. There are of course things to congratulate Gove for, and leaks about this week’s white paper suggest that there will be more to celebrate. An overhaul of teacher training looks to be unashamedly radical and positive. But still we are right to want more because the success needs to be undeniable and universal. And as James Tooley of Newcastle University states in TES, "The problem with the free-school policy is that, ultimately, the schools are not accountable to the parents, but to their paymaster, the Government."

Woodhead and Tooley are both right. Gove needs to allow for-profit free schools. Once free to choose, future governments will not be able to to wrestle power back from the people, as they will be up against one interest group they cannot ignore: parents.

Should we be optimistic about economic education?

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The state of the structural deficit requires cuts to spending if we are to avoid going bust. Only someone bereft of the facts and a rational mind could argue anything different. As Allister Heath of City AM pointed out last week “reasonable people can disagree about what the priorities should be; but nobody can deny that the government is spending close to 20 per cent more than it is collecting in tax. Countries that go on like that for too long eventually go bust.”

Supporters of a minimal state can on the whole admit that cutting isn’t in every instance going to lead to more positive outcomes than we currently have. Stopping spending is really only part of the battle. The more important job is freeing people from the plethora of regulations thwarting those who have the drive and ideas to increase the economic pie. We have all been living on borrowed money for too long in an overregulated economy and society estranged from its tradition of self-help.

The immediate concern is to ensure that the current government does indeed cut public spending while reforming public services. However, the larger challenge is to ensure that more people in the country have a better understanding of the economic way of thinking. A while back Allister Heath called on Goldman Sachs to spend £1bn on financial and economic education. Sadly, I’m not so sure it’s entirely in Goldman’s interest to have a population that understands finance too well. As such, the work of the Adam Smith Institute and others remains vital.

Perhaps there is room for some optimism though. Recent popular economics books by authors such as Steven Levitt, Tim Harford, Peter Leeson and Nassim Nicholas Taleb show that there is an appetite for the pretty robust works that explore the economic way of thinking. More importantly economics on the internet is a place where obfuscation is pounced upon by smart amateurs that are as likely to be better informed than the expert. If students increasingly eschew the mass media and get their economic education from such websites as The Library of Economics and Liberty, Marginal Revolution, Coordination Problem, Think Markets and David Friedman’s Ideas rather than the mass media, this country would be both intellectually and materially richer for it.

Let’s end the bog standard in education

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bog-standardTowards the end of the 19th century and increasingly into the 20th and 21st, politicians and intellectuals became convinced by the idea that they could run the country through central planning than the individual decisions of each and every person acting in their own interest. In this climate of control they usurped and marginalised private schooling, planning centrally what had previously occurred spontaneously. In time the “bog standard comprehensive” came to be the model for all but the richest.

Tony Blair used the term “bog standard comprehensive” in a conference speech, which was coined by the now repentant Peter Hyman. Perhaps it is discourteous to the many talented professionals working in the toughest schools, but its popular usage attests to the fact that it captures the essence of the state we’re in. The “bog” evokes images of stagnation – and this is exactly what has happened under a system directed centrally by the government. While freer industries have thrived in conditions of competition and innovation, centrally planned schooling has languished behind.

Schooling is long overdue for a shakeup to release the talents of the students currently stuck in the quagmire. As an industry, teaching methods are firmly entrenched in the past. For example, most children don’t learn to speak a language despite spending their lives sitting for hundreds of hours in a classroom attempting to do so. Even those with top grades can’t hold a basic conversation. As the language expert Paul Noble points out: “Students realise that even if they do get a GCSE in French, they still won’t be able to speak the language”. In contrast, private companies guarantee that business people will learn more than this in a couple days.

This is not a call for another revision of the national curriculum and a new national strategy to push all children into intensive language lessons. This would entirely miss the point. Instead we need to free schools, and the first way this could be done is to allow them to run for a profit. As with any service industry, experimentation would become the norm and best practice would be copied where appropriate. Education companies abroad are ready to invest, while there are many companies in the UK currently teaching adults various skills that would be able to add immense value to teaching children. Without this change, most will be left mired neck-deep in an unwholesome bog standard education.

The unlimited price of shoes?

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As Sam pointed out on Wednesday, Lord Browne’s report is to be largely welcomed. However, Vince Cable, after initially praising the report, has now raised concerns about what he calls “unlimited fees” and declared that the system needs to be more progressive than it is now. There is a real risk that Browne’s ‘free-market lite’ approach will become a spaghetti soup of regulation.

It is disingenuous to call a system with no cap unlimited when it will be limited by competition. Nobody talks of the unlimited price of shoes, and for good reason. In a free market, universities will be able to charge what people are willing to pay for it and not a penny more. Prices will be driven down by competing providers.

To address Cable progressive concerns is rather easy. Free market reforms would progressive. Currently university education amounts to a transfer of money from present non-graduates to future graduates. Putting the cost burden onto the beneficiaries of higher education is to use the buzzword of the moment “fair”.

There is a real risk that Vince Cable will want to set another cap, higher than the last but no less foolhardy. Fee caps artificially increase the demand for university places, cause students to be less engaged and demanding about their course, and ultimately decrease investment in higher education. This last point is crucial, as universities need more money if they are to be able more offer targeted bursaries to poorer students.

The unions are of course up in arms about any reforms. The student unions are misguidedly trying to protect their members from fee increases, while the teaching unions are concerned that their members might lose their jobs. This is all framed in concern for the poorest, but they are barking up the wrong tree if their concerns are real.

If access to university from poorer sections of society concerns them, they should be looking at the quality of education received prior to university and looking into the vast difference in quality between schools that are run and regulated by the government and those that aren’t. To reduce this gap we need innovation and investment. Vouchers and for-profit schools are the way forward. And for those that don’t go on to university? Well, at least there will be less chance of them being illiterate and innumerate, unable to find someone willing employ them on at the minimum wage.