First, we take Berlin


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


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


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.

Students know the value of education


Researchers from the University of Leicester have surveyed students and found that “increasing tuition fees – even to £10,000 per year – would not significantly reduce applications for university in England.” This is hardly surprising, just on the basis of a cost-benefit-analysis, many courses would still open up the possibility of earning more throughout one’s career than the costs of paying for university. Of course, more than future earnings are taken into account, but it must be a significant factor in explaining the results.

It is also unsurprising that “[t]he survey shows that while the most prestigious universities would not lose applications from a fee increase, there would be much greater resistance to pay higher fees at new universities.” That there is some correlation between the prestige of a university and the amount that students are willing to pay is not headline news. That potential university graduates are hesitant about paying for a course that would not offer them the same opportunities is also to be expected. It would have been remarkable if the survey had found anything else. This is precisely why the price mechanism needs to be allowed to function, with different courses at different universities charging varying amounts, with all the feedback to customer and supplier that a more open market allows.

In response, NUS president, Aaron Porter claims ”Fees have always unfairly impacted those from poorer backgrounds”. He is not entirely wrong about the impact; people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to take courses that are currently less value for their money compared to those from wealthier backgrounds. Removing the cap might mean that the poorer will have to pay more, or they may choose not to go university at all. However, this just brings to light the fact that prior to university, many poorer students are not adequately taught by their schools to compete with those educated privately – and lets not forget that these schools are funded through general taxation, heavily regulated and run by the government.

It’s all Greek to me


The BBC asked “Should British pupils give up studying French?” However, the key issue isn’t whether or not children should be learning French, but the fact that schools are encouraging children to take easier subjects so that the school scores well on the league tables. Crucially this is not always to the advantage of the children, especially if they plan to apply to elite universities.

Independent schools tend not to do this because their reputation requires that they take greater interest in their pupils. In contrast, many state schools are taking the easy way out. Without radical reform of the education system, the government will only be able to choose between the blunt tools of either compulsion or league tables. Both have undesirable unintended consequences.

Others in the article echo my point. For example, the language learning expert Paul Noble states that "the core reason is because pupils know French is difficult to pass, and difficult to get something out of it”, while Michel Monsauret, attache for education at the French Embassy in London, points out that subjects such as religious studies are on the increase because they are perceived to be easier. Mr Monsauret correctly states that “languages are taught more extensively at private schools in the UK, and their pupils go on to dominate places at Oxbridge and the other best universities."

Predictably the National University of Teachers (NUT) is appalled: “The policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable”. Children, according to the NUT, aren’t adequately equipped for life in a global society. A bit rich coming from an organization set up to protect the interests of teachers even when against the benefits to parents and children; an organization that is the biggest impediment to reform. Asking the NUT what is best for children is like asking a turkey what should be eaten at Christmas – the goose will always be cooked.

Whether one’s child should be taught French, German, Cantonese or Chamicuro should be solely that of the parents. Of course, they will be limited by what is being offered, which is an argument for a dynamic and competitive system – one driven by the free market, not bureaucratic oversight. That learning a language involves no literature shows how bankrupt the teaching is many of our schools. As such, the lamentations of Aida Edemariam and others are frankly irrelevant.

The teaching of French – or lack of it – is symbolic of the wider failure of bureaucratic control of the education.