But isn’t it going to be just marvelous if he isn’t? For he’s talking about the state of education, the state of the state school sector. And it appears at least that the problem has finally been cracked:
When Boris Johnson is asked about his education, he cheerily replies that he would like “thousands of school as good as the one I went to: Eton”. Once, this would have been seen as preposterous: how can state schools compete with a £35,000-a-year Leviathan? But each year shows what teachers can do, given enough power and trust. Battersea Park was a failing school when Harris took it over last September with only 45 per cent of its pupils securing five decent GCSEs. Yesterday, it announced this has risen to 68 per cent. King’s Maths School, a free school in London, released its first-ever results earlier this week. Its average points score is among the top 10 schools in the land. Not the top 10 per cent; the top ten schools.
The staggering advances being made by state schools in Britain are the work of teachers and pupils, rather than politicians. Kenneth Baker, Tony Blair and Michael Gove simply offered increasing amounts of freedom to teachers, and their faith has been amply rewarded. For those who had despaired of ever finding a remedy for sink schools, this is nothing short of miraculous – and it’s only just beginning. School reform can now be seen as the greatest achievement of the Labour years, even if the Conservatives are the only ones who believe in it.
We might even call this a victory for conservatism (no, not Conservatism). Burke’s little platoons can indeed organise society so that it actually works. But the much larger point that we need to keep pointing out here is that there’s a vast difference between government or state financing of something and government or state provision of something. This is relevant to the railways, the NHS, to the power sector and all the rest as well.
There are indeed good arguments, Adam Smith made one of them for example, that there should be governmental subsidy to the education system. Being part of a generally literate and numerate population almost certainly is a public good. But that does not mean that it has to be government that actually provides the education. The same is true of health care: yes, it probably is true that at least some goodly portion of health care financing should be provided through the insurance pool of the entire population. And thus through the mechanisms of if not the tax system in its entirety then at least some portion of that insurance net. But this is not at all the same as stating that every provider of health care should be a government employee, nor that politics should be the mechanism by which we decide what health care, in detail, to offer.
As this schools revolution is showing, there is that vast difference between government financing of something desirable and government provision and management of it in detail. And as that revolution is showing, removing the government provision of it seems to be the best method of improving the provision of it.