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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Private schools are revolutionising developing world education. If only UNESCO would admit they exist

Written by James Stanfield | Friday 01 February 2013

A so-called ‘fact sheet’ on education in Nigeria published by UNESCO in October 2012 suggests that Nigeria has some of the worst education indicators in the developing world.  For example, since 1999, the number of out-of-school children has increased from 7.4 to 10.5 million, which means that Nigeria now has the largest number of out‐of‐school children in the world.  Unfortunately, these statistics fail to take into account the thousands of unregistered low cost private schools that exist across Nigeria and the millions of children who attend these schools.  Consider, for example, the following findings from a census of private schools in Lagos State carried out by DFID in 2010-2011:

The table shows that the vast majority (88%) of schools in Lagos State are private and they cater for 57% of all enrolments.  Most of these schools are owned by individual proprietors and serve low income families.  The report therefore concludes that ‘the education landscape in Lagos is dominated by the private sector, with the majority of pupils attending private schools of all types’.  Critically, 74% (8,952) of these private schools are unregistered and therefore not included in the official statistics.  If the average number of children in these private schools is 114 then this would suggest that over 1,000,000 children in Lagos State alone are not out of school but attending unregistered fee paying private schools.

Further research carried out by DfID in Kwara State also estimated that there could be a possible 417,600 private enrolments, compared with the official school census from 2010/2011 which only recorded 157,327 children in private schools.  This would add another 260,000 children who are not out of school but attending unregistered fee paying private schools.   There are thirty six states in Nigeria and my guess is that if similar research was carried out in each state then the total number of out of school children would be dramatically reduced to a fraction of UNESCO’s original figure of 10.5 million - which is clearly bogus and in no way, shape or form reflects the reality on the ground. 

So what could possibly explain such an extraordinary level of incompetence on behalf of UNESCO?  First, UNESCO benefits from exaggerating the extent of the so called global education crisis because they are the international agency tasked with solving the problem.  Without an education crisis and UNESCO would quickly become redundant.    Second, by widely exaggerating the number of out of school children, this also allows UNESCO to point the finger at Western donors for failing to meet their funding commitments.  This also helps to deflect attention away from the enormous problems facing government education sectors across the developing world including rampant corruption, teacher absenteeism and an almost unbelievably low level of learning - problems which UNESCO have failed to address over the previous half century. 

Finally, UNESCO’s legendary anti-capitalist bias used to manifest itself in direct hostility to all forms of private sector involvement in education.  Today, their opposition is much more civilised – they simply turn a blind eye to the remarkable growth of private schools for the poor across the developing world and instead continue to preach to the world in blissful ignorance and in a complete state of self-denial.

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The coming qualifications revolution

Written by James Stanfield | Thursday 30 August 2012

A new generation of qualifications has recently emerged in the global IT sector, which operate very differently from our traditional GCSE’s and A Levels.  For example, Microsoft Learning is now a global leader in IT qualifications and they offer a wide range of Microsoft Certifications which provide individuals with technical expertise and prove their ability to design and build innovative solutions across multiple technologies.  Due to the rapid rate of change in this sector, new Microsoft qualifications are continuously being introduced and existing qualifications revised.  Some certifications are retired when Microsoft ends its support for the related technology and others must be updated every three years by taking a refresh exam.  This generates additional income for the company, enables students to keep up to date on the latest developments in the field and ensures that potential employers have confidence that someone who holds a Microsoft Certification is current and engaged with Microsoft technologies.  In short the value and the relevance of the qualification are maintained over time.

The branding of these new qualifications is also significant because the quality and reputation of the qualification is now inextricably linked with the quality and reputation of the parent company.  Therefore any criticism of the Microsoft Certification will have a negative impact on the corporate image of Microsoft itself, which places pressure on the company to continuously maintain and improve the quality of its qualifications by investing in research and development and experimenting with new and better ways of delivery.  Further pressure comes from existing and any future competitors from around the world which may introduce a superior alternative at any time.  Again, all of these pressures help to maintain the value and the relevance of the qualification.

Because the government uses examination results as a key measure of a schools performance, schools respond by teaching to the test and by choosing the exam board which has the highest pass rate, i.e the easiest exams.  You therefore end up with a race to the bottom with each private exam company competing to provide the easiest exams. Children continue to get better exam results, schools continue to climb the league table and the government can boast of helping to improve standards across the board.  And when people begin to highlight the blatantly obvious, that despite increasing grades, children appear to be less educated than half a century ago, the private companies which provide the curriculum and the exams can simply hide behind the cover of the government and its generic GCSE qualification, which now attract most of the criticism.  As a result the branding of the company remains intact, while the value of the GCSE continues to decline, until it becomes worthless.

Thankfully, a new generation of specialist qualifications may soon begin to appear in more traditional subjects across the curriculum, as a variety of world class companies and organisations begin to offer their own branded certificates, in the subject areas in which they specialise.   For example, Pfizer could provide qualifications in the sciences, Khan Academy on maths, Pearson on English, Adobe on web design, Virgin on entrepreneurship, Google on utilising the internet, National Geographic on geography, the British Museum on history, the Economist on economics, Fitness First on sport, Jamie Oliver on home economics, Office Angels on how to get a job, Marks and Spencer on customer service and Greenpeace on the environment.  The list is endless.

This unbundling of the school into different subject areas helps to redefine the school as a mechanism that provides students with an assortment of services instead of delivering an indivisible package of education.  We can then start to disentangle the components of that package and customise them to fit specific student needs and abilities.  Choice, variety and specialisation will therefore begin to increase within each school, and each school will now be in a position to offer their students a variety of different courses and qualifications.  With the use of online technology this increasing variety and customisation of children’s education is now much more affordable and this will also encourage a new blended style of learning that combines the classroom with an online experience.

This unbundling of the school will certainly appeal to those parents who live in areas where there is a lack of alternative schools to choose from or who may not want to disrupt their children’s education by transferring them to a different school.  Instead, if they are not satisfied with their child’s progress in a particular subject then they will now have the opportunity to choose between a variety of different educational programmes and qualifications within the same school.  Therefore the goal for customised, unbundled school reform is not to develop a new model of what a good school should look like but to create a flexible system that enables schools and a variety of specialist content providers to meet a variety of needs in increasingly effective and targeted ways.

The end result is that children would not simply graduate after 11 years of schooling with a single certificate which lists the subjects studied and the corresponding A-F grade.  Instead they would graduate with a portfolio of branded qualifications which have real meaning in the outside world and which provide useful information concerning the knowledge and skills acquired by each student.   However, unlike traditional qualifications these branded qualifications will not hold their value for ever but will expire after a certain period of time unless a refresh exam is taken.  This is the only way to guarantee that the qualification holds its value and remains relevant over time, thereby protecting the brand image of both the qualification and the parent company. 

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A vision of the liberal ideal in education

Written by James Stanfield | Monday 23 July 2012

To date, many of the arguments for increasing parental choice in education and allowing a diversity of provision have focused on a number of practical arguments such as the need to improve the performance of failing government schools, the need for additional school places and the general desire to ensure that all children can benefit from the best schools available, irrespective of income or location. These arguments originate from the “what matters, is what works” school of politics where ideological principles are no longer relevant.

However, while this evidence, results or outcomes-based approach can be very persuasive, it may not be sufficient if the proposed reforms are to win widespread support amongst both politicians and the general public. According to Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, evidence of “what works” must be supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal that attempts to capture the minds of people.

Consider, for example, the suffragettes who were campaigning for the right to vote at the start of the twentieth century. Their case for reform was not based on any evidence which showed that extending the right to vote to women would guarantee a better election result than the existing voting system. In fact, many opponents of the reforms (mostly men, but not exclusively) warned of the perverse consequences and the chaos that would follow if women were allowed to vote on the important and complicated matters of national government.  Instead the suffragette movement were campaigning for a fundamental freedom and a basic human right – the freedom and right of women to vote. A voting system based upon universal franchise was therefore deemed to be superior to one which was based upon a restricted franchise, irrespective of the results or outcomes of subsequent elections. In this example the evidence-based approach was clearly of limited use and, in fact, it could be argued that those who attempted to appeal to evidence had completely misunderstood the nature of the problem and the key issues at stake.

This same line of reasoning could also be applied to the current debate in education. An education system in which all parents have the freedom to choose would be deemed to be superior to the current system which continues to restrict these freedoms. Any appeal to evidence or what works would therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.  Buchanan refers to the repeal of the corn laws in the 19th century as a successful example of when evidence was supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal to help gain support for proposed reforms. If we were to heed his advice then a national campaign for the repeal of the school laws, which restrict freedom in education is now required.

A campaign for freedom in education would be based on the principle that it is parents and not politicians who are ultimately responsible for their children’s education - a responsibility which can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the nature, form and content of education which their children receive. Parental choice or freedom in education therefore is not desirable simply because it may help to improve the efficiency of failing government schools. Nor is parental choice in education simply the latest policy reform that will go out of fashion in a few years’ time. Instead, it is important for the same reasons that religious freedom or freedom of the press are important - because they are both recognised as basic human rights or fundamental freedoms, which deserve to be respected and protected at all costs.

A vision of the liberal ideal in education would therefore recognise that the responsibility for educating children cannot be transferred to others; nor can it be side-lined or placed behind other considerations. Instead, it is the key principle upon which the whole education system is based. This means that governments must not in any way restrict, undermine or distort this important relationship between parent and child and the natural growth and development of education. As a result, it will not be the role of politicians to dictate which schools children should or should not attend or how much parents should invest in their children’s education.  This will, once again, be the responsibility of parents. Nor will it be the role of politicians to dictate who can and cannot set up and manage a school.

The liberty to teach and the freedom to educate must be respected and it will ultimately be parents who decide if a new school will flourish or not.

While politicians have previously argued that education was far too important to be left to ignorant parents and the chaos of the market, they must now be prepared to admit that education is far too important to be left to politicians. Politicians must have the humility to recognise that their own personal views on what works on education are completely irrelevant. After all, what does any politician know about the detailed and very specific circumstances of each and every pupil and parent across the UK?

Therefore, a future education sector where the rights and responsibilities of parents are both respected and protected will not be planned or directed by central government, nor will it be used to achieve any “national” objectives. Instead, it will consist of a variety of different national and international private, independent, autonomous, for-profit and not for-profit institutions, each with their own specific missions. The needs and desires of parents (and not politicians or governments) will be supreme and the government will be restricted to establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different institutions to compete and flourish on a level playing field.

According to Buchanan a vision of the liberal ideal would also be based upon our desire to be free from the coercive power of others, combined with the absence of a desire to exert power over others.  Another Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, helps to explain:

Willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one agrees is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech; the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one thoroughly disagrees. Similarly, the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity of a kind one thoroughly dislikes.

Therefore, this provides a useful test to all those who continue to view parental choice or increasing diversity in the provision of education as an unnecessary evil. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing government restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may not want their children to attend such a school. From this perspective, a vision of the liberal ideal should be seen as much less self-obsessed and instead much more compassionate towards the private beliefs and the opinions of those who are directly responsible for children’s education – their parents.

For those politicians concerned with the “vote motive”, the fact that most parents are also voters might imply that reforms that increase parents’ freedom to choose in education have a good chance of gaining electoral support if the case for reform is communicated and presented in the correct way.  The time may also be right to launch a campaign for freedom in education because a vision which is based upon liberty and democracy is currently a common denominator of both the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Party. There can be nothing more liberal and democratic than extending the right to choose to all parents, irrespective of their income or location. The following advice from Bastiat should therefore appeal to both parties:

Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty.

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A private schools revolution in Bihar, India

Written by James Stanfield | Thursday 01 March 2012

Recent research carried out by the India Institute and Newcastle University's E.G. West Centre in the Indian city of Patna has produced some remarkable findings. The report, The Private School Revolution In Bihar, India, launched this week in New Delhi, and shows that government statistics are currently excluding three quarters of the schools in the city and 68% of school children.  This means that 238,767 school children out of a total of 333,776 were missing from the official data. 

Instead of the official 350 schools, the research located a total of 1,574 schools with 78% identified as private unaided, 21% government and 1% private aided.  Therefore, approximately 65% of school children in Patna were attending private unaided schools, with just 34% attending government schools. According to Professor Tooley, "when plotting the location of 1,182 private schools and 111 government schools using GIS technology, we found that there existed hardly a road or a street in Patna without a private school”.

Based on the monthly fees being charged at each private school, the research also found that 69% of private unaided schools were low cost, 22% were affordable and only 9% higher cost. In other words, the vast majority of private unaided schools found in the city of Patna were low cost, charging fees of less £4 per month.

These findings have two important implications.  First, if these findings reflect the real state of education across India and developing world, then the so called ‘global education crisis’ is much less of a crisis than previously thought. Instead, the widespread under-reporting of the number of children in school may now be a deliberate policy of developing country governments to help attract more international aid. 

Second, Article 18 of the 2009 Right to Education Act in India requires that all unrecognised schools in the country be closed down within three years of the Act coming into force.  For the city of Patna this would involve forcing two thirds of the city’s children out of school and onto the street – all because of government legislation which is supposed to be increasing school enrolments and not dramatically reducing it. 

Thankfully, it would appear that the Bihar Education Minister P.K. Shahi has already read the report. Last Saturday he declared that “I can assure that the government will not implement the Right to Education Act in Bihar and will not force private schools to follow rules under it.”  I suppose the people of Bihar should be grateful to their Education Minister for not shutting down the majority of their schools. However, this does make me wonder – do politicians around the world have any kind of positive impact on the education which children receive, or are they all bent on disrupting and distorting its natural growth and development?

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Why not a "John Lewis" education sector, Mr Clegg?

Written by James Stanfield | Saturday 21 January 2012

According to the Deputy Prime Minister, employee-owned companies such as John Lewis tend to perform better than other companies.  This is hardly news, as the majority of successful companies around the world have been using employee share ownership schemes for decades to help attract, incentivise and retain key staff. However, Clegg's desire to promote and encourage more companies to follow their lead, raises an intriguing question - if employee-owned companies tend to perform better, why not employee-owned schools?  Why not extend the idea of 'responsible capitalism' into education?  As teachers play such an important role in children's schooling, then any incentives which can encourage teachers to perform better, clearly have enormous potential to do good.

This idea is not as far-fetched as some may think.  For example, in 2000 Richard Vedder (Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University), published a short publication titled "Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?", in which he presents a bold plan to allow teachers to become the owners of schools, thereby acquiring an attractive financial stake in the  education process.  His proposal draws inspiration from Margaret Thatcher's privatization of government council housing, privatization reforms in Latin America, and the E.S.O.P. (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) movement in the United States and he concludes that if teachers could become shareholders in different chains of for-profit schools then this would help to foster "vibrant school communities with increased parental involvement and the innovation and efficiency essential to produce educational excellence".

Unfortunately in the UK the Deputy Primate Minister still wants to discriminate against, discourage and restrict all for-profit companies from investing in education, which means that the sector as a whole will be denied the benefits of having employee owned schools.   It is also important to note that this is only one of numerous different benefits which for-profit companies could bring to the education table, if only politicians such as Nick Clegg would give them a fair and equal chance.  Nick Clegg's on-going approach to education does not represent 'responsible capitalism', but deeply 'irresponsible government'.

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New at AdamSmith.org: Why private schools have a moral duty not to support government schools

Written by James Stanfield | Wednesday 07 December 2011

According to Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, Berkshire, fee-paying private schools have a “moral duty” to help run failing government schools in deprived areas.  However private schools are right to question the wisdom of this approach.

First, it is important to remember that the government initially intervened in education in the late 19th century to help support the growth and development of education in deprived areas.  However, instead of subsidizing parents and allowing them to choose between a variety of different schools, previous governments directed all public subsidies towards its own free schools, whilst neglecting and ignoring all private alternatives.  This subsequently forced the closure of thousands of private and voluntary schools leaving only a small number of private schools to cater for families on a higher income.

Read this article.

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Parental responsibility in schooling depends on choice

Written by James Stanfield | Monday 05 September 2011

It would appear that the reason why the UK¹s education sector will remain closed to private investment, innovation and entrepreneurship for the foreseeable future is because Nick Clegg and his Liberal colleagues personally dislike the idea of giving highly efficient and successful for-profit companies the opportunity to transform the way education is designed and delivered across the UK. That said, Nick Clegg is now also calling for more parental responsibility in education which sounds like a positive development. Mr Clegg can’t have his cake and eat it too.

If parents are responsible for their children’s education then they can only fulfil this responsibility if they are free to choose the nature and form of education which their children receive. As a result, if the freedom of parents to choose is restricted then this will also undermine parental responsibility. Parental responsibility and the freedom of parents to choose are therefore intimately linked and are best viewed as two sides of the same coin.

Governments therefore have a clear choice. They can either promote parental responsibility in education by guaranteeing that they have the greatest possible variety of educational opportunities to choose from or they can undermine parental responsibility in education by restricting the variety of different educational opportunities which parents are free to choose from.

Therefore, by refusing to allow a variety of different education providers to compete on a fair and level playing field, Nick Clegg is continuing to undermine parental responsibility in education. Any rhetoric about wanting to increase parental responsibility in education should therefore be challenged as being in direct conflict with his position on refusing to allow for-profit companies to compete in education.

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Capitalism will deliver the innovation that education needs

Written by James Stanfield | Wednesday 15 June 2011

The third Annual Venture Capital in Education Summit is currently taking place in New York which brings together a select group of entrepreneurs and investors with the hope of accelerating education innovation and investment.

Ten early stage education technology companies are being showcased, including: Magic Planet - a digital display with a sphere-shaped screen which provides global information visually; Late Nite Labs – a virtual lab platform which contains 150+ experiment simulations for distance and hybrid learning settings; LessonWriter - an expert-system that automates the detailed and time-consuming task of creating teaching materials, individualizing instruction and assessing performance; Skillshare - a community marketplace for offline classes whose mission is to democratize learning, turning cities into classrooms and its inhabitants into teachers and students; and many more exciting innovations that could revolutionize education.

A key theme of this summit will be the future potential of gaming technology in education which is perhaps one of the most exciting developments to take place in this sector for a generation. Students are already beginning to learn in virtual worlds such as GAIAonline, Neopets and Club Penguin and new adaptive learning games include MangaHigh, Dimension M, Dreambox, Carnegie Learning and Reasoning Mind. Leading the field in this area include organisations such as Games for Change, The Education Arcade, the Learning Games Network and Quest to Learn - a new game-based school in New York with an inquiry-based modular curriculum which incorporates gameplay dynamics into the learning experience.

The summit is designed for educational entrepreneurs and those committed to providing the capital and resources to support their latest ventures, including: angel and seed investors, venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, foundations, private equity investors and directors of education ventures. Politicians and bureaucrats are not invited, which suggests that their role in the future design and development of education is now becoming increasingly irrelevant.

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