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.

First, we take Berlin

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National stereotypes can have a basis in truth, but they can also be a lazy way of thinking about the individuals within a country. As such, it is always good to be confronted with a reality at odds with preconceptions, and my recent trip to Berlin did just that. Visiting bar after bar, I was struck by the sweet smell of freedom: cigarette smoke.

Not only are smokers tolerated, they are actively encouraged, with a polite message welcoming smokers affixed to many doors. Not all bars are smoking bars, but this is one of the joys of the system – smokers are also tolerant of non-smokers. Locals know where to go if they want to avoid the smoke, and where to go to avoid those that wish to avoid them. This is how a polite society functions. While most smokers in other European capitals have caved in under pressure from their governments, the Germans have simply ignored the legislation.

The freedom to smoke in private establishments has become a signature issue for proper liberals. It is one that we should continue to push, not because it is the most popular, but because it is one of the most flagrant attacks against the ability of people to choose the kind of life one wants to lead. Onerous government legislation combined with public subservience has dramatically undermined that most glorious of stereotypes: The freeborn Englishman.

In this country schools are indoctrinating generation after generation to hate smokers. A counterculture is being formed in reaction to the nanny state, which might in time subvert the statist status quo. But better to turn off the tap of hate, relax, and live and let live (or die for that matter). If not, we might as well be learning German.

A lesson in outsourcing

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internetI’m not sure how this story passed me by, but it is a rather fascinating development in how children are taught. For £12 per hour, Ashmount Primary in Islington is now outsourcing some of its teaching to the university town of Ludhiana in the Punjab.

The school is clearly happy with the service from BrightSpark, which allows for one-on-one tuition via videocalling over the internet. Assistant headteacher Rebecca Stacey said: “We were approached to do the pilot, and started very small with just a few pupils, but we quickly realised it was having a positive impact and so increased it so half of our Year 6 pupils are using it.” It just goes to show that, despite the lack of market incentives, some teaching professionals in the state sector are still willing to put children ahead of the teachers – something that should be commended.

Some of the comments from teachers on the TES website show how misguided the objections to this practice are:

Objection 1: “This idea stinks. It is all about a private sector company making money out of UK education.”

Answer: No – it is all about a private company offering a superior service at a cheaper cost. What matters is the result for children.

Objection 2: “I’m a fully qualified primary school teacher, with years of experience, who has specialised in Maths support and who was made redundant. I’m now considering relocating to New Zealand so I think you can imagine how I feel about this.”

Answer: The fact that people lose their jobs is never something to celebrate (politicians excepted), but the children, schools and parents should be free to improve their lot and not be sacrificed for the benefit of less efficient teachers and methods.

Objection 3: “The ethical issue is whether one can hire teachers for salaries and working conditions which would under no circumstances be unacceptable in UK. Ask yourself why you would have different standards for people in these two countries!”

Answer: This is profoundly naïve. These employees are freely choosing to work in what are in fact very good conditions relative to the majority of the population. To take it away and make their lives worse would be wrong.

The subversion of the power of vested interests that this move represents could, if it takes off, have a profound influence on quality of teaching in this country. When it comes to education, we have a lot learn from the rest of the world. India already has many private schools for the poor, while the cultural value that the people place in education could inspire a society disillusioned on the transformative power of education.

Critics of choice in education should go back to school

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choiceWriting in the TES, English teacher Julie Greenhough has a short article entitled ‘Why freedom of choice is often no freedom at all’. It is sympathetic towards a view that has recently been expressed by many working in education: that freedom doesn’t work.

Ms Greenhough opens with the classic ‘too much choice’ argument. Apparently, she didn’t buy a cup of tea because she was faced with too much choice. I suppose that is why shops don’t tend to sell thousands of different pots of jam or types tea for that matter. And this, I suppose, is the reason companies advertise and build up branding, as we don’t want to read the label of every product. Instead, we can draw on information from the market and get a free ride from even more advanced consumers. Variable pricing also transmits useful signals of this front, while feedback from friends, family, the media, as well as consumer oriented magazines and websites are part of the process.

Next there is a swipe at those supporting Swedish-style reforms in education. Ms Greenhough thinks the fact that we spend 5.6% of GDP and Sweden spends 7.1% of GDP on education is enough to cast the reforms aside as useless. Of course more money can help (up to a point), but it is far from the be all and end all of a good education system. If it were, Cuba would be twice as advanced in education as even Sweden and that is clearly not the case. In fact, the fact that the Swedish reforms have proved so successful – garnering increasing support from parents, pupils and politicians – suggests that we can see improvements without having to spend more money, a policy that surely deserves support from libertarians and socialists alike.

In the final part of the article, Ms Greenhough suggests that because more pupils have been achieving better grades, we are already seeing educational improvement. I wish this were the case. Recently Mick Waters claimed that the exam system is ‘diseased’. Although Mr Waters misdirects his ire at the wrong target – it is principally the fault of government regulation, not disreputable companies – there can be little doubt that the image he portrays is broadly accurate. Grades are being inflated and devalued as fast as the pound. Radical change is needed if this is to be reversed.