Why not get all Marxist about the libraries?

We've another of these dirges about how the libraries are under such great threat:

Nearly 350 libraries have closed in Britain over the past six years, causing the loss of almost 8,000 jobs, according to new analysis.

In a controversial move that sparked protests by authors including Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith, councils across the country have shut their reading rooms in an effort to make deep savings.

Children’s author Alan Gibbons warned the public library service faced the “greatest crisis in its history”.

All of which brings out our inner Karl Marx. Who did insist that the forces of production (ie, technology) determined social relations. And if we're to be a little more narrow about this, technology determines, or at least should, how we go about doing certain things. The economic historian Brad Delong has long pointed out that the university teaching style of a lecture is really just a hangover from medieval days. When books were vastly expensive (a scholar might hope to accumulate a library of perhaps a score volumes over a lifetime) then having one person reading that very expensive product to 200 made some sort of sense. When a copy of the book costs less than the hourly wage of the reader perhaps less so.

So it is with libraries. When books were much more expensive than they are today then increasing the Solow Residual (in exactly and entirely the manner that Uber and so on do today, the sharing economy) through reuse and lending made great sense. But technologies change, relative prices change. It may or may not be true that we have reached that tipping point just yet, where the value of the books being lent is less than the cost of running the lending system, but we think we can all see that that is going to happen at some point.

The point is thus not that libraries are closing, nor that we should all fight the power to prevent it. What should actually be the discussion is, well, do we need libraries any more? And if we still do then when won't we?

But of course, as C. Northcote Parkinson pointed out, there's nothing as conservative as a bureaucracy considering its own existence.

Yes, this is how school competition works

School competition works in exactly the same manner as other forms of competition that is. It's something that happens at the margin, that margin then dragging up the performance of others:

There is no evidence that academies perform better than council-maintained schools. The white paper highlights impressive improvements in primary schools – 85% of those are still maintained. 82% of maintained schools have been rated good or excellent by Ofsted, while three times as many councils perform above the national average in terms of progress made by students than the largest academy chains. Where a school is failing, there is no question that action must be taken – but converting every school to an academy will not tackle those issues.

Think of a different arena to study the effects of competition. We know very well that the firms who export are those at the productivity boundary: exporting firms are near always significantly more productive than the other domestic firms in that same sector. Now think of the flip side of that statement: imports from Germany into Britain expose British companies to the finest and most productive German forms. This is one of the major channels by which trade improves productivity. Domestic firms must compete against those imports and near by definition those imports are coming from firms with greater than average productivity. Thus the domestic firms have to pull their socks up.....or be replaced by those who do.

Imports are not, of course, a majority of the UK economy: but that exposure to the best does improve matters over the whole economy. Now back to academies and schools: that some small portion of the education system are academies is exactly what, entirely analagous to that effect from trade and imports, is improving the non-academy state sector. To state that non-academies are improving too is not some symptom of a failure of the program, it's evidence of the success of the program: competition works.

At which point, turning all schools into academies. If it works, as it does, if it's working, as it is, then why not? After all, we do all believe in evidence based policy making, don't we? Good, academies, the competition and freedom to experiment that they bring, are improving the school system by their existence. Thus let's do more of it so as to have an ever better education sector.

Unless, of course, we'd prefer to return to the policy based evidence making of yore which insisted that competition was a bad thing....

It's not entirely obvious that comprehensive education is the right solution


That headline is to put it somewhat mildly of course. One problem with truly comprehensive education, where all do attend the same school, is that there's sometimes a minority who really don't want to be there. And who will make this blindingly obvious through their behaviour. Now, true, they do still need to be educated. However, the point and purpose of comprehensive education, the actual underlying moral argument, is that it is better if we are indeed all educated together. And this isn't true so this study says:

A large and growing literature has documented the importance of peer effects in education. However, there is relatively little evidence on the long-run educational and labor market consequences of childhood peers. We examine this question by linking administrative data on elementary school students to subsequent test scores, college attendance and completion, and earnings. To distinguish the effect of peers from confounding factors, we exploit the population variation in the proportion of children from families linked to domestic violence, who were shown by Carrell and Hoekstra (2010, 2012) to disrupt contemporaneous behavior and learning. Results show that exposure to a disruptive peer in classes of 25 during elementary school reduces earnings at age 26 by 3 to 4 percent. We estimate that differential exposure to children linked to domestic violence explains 5 to 6 percent of the rich-poor earnings gap in our data, and that removing one disruptive peer from a classroom for one year would raise the present discounted value of classmates' future earnings by $100,000.

That disbenefit of having the disruptive pupils should obviously be considered against whatever are the social benefits of all being in it together. But given that immense difficulty anyone has in making sure that one of these disruptive pupils does not in fact disrupt we're really pretty certain that this is not considered. It should be.

Isn't it just wonderful how politics works?


If you promise someone lots of other peoples' money then you can buy their vote:

“I’m 100 percent Bernie,” freshman and first-time voter Emily Wilcox told ThinkProgress. “On education, women’s rights, equality, climate, and really everything, he’s great. He’s looking to the future and thinking about our generation.”

Wearing American flags as capes and BERNIE scrawled across their foreheads in black marker, Wilcox and her friend Summer Auvil said the campus has been leaning towards Sanders in large part because of his promise of tuition-free higher education. The students said signs for Clinton or any Republican candidate were rare on their campus.

“Bernie is just the right choice,” Auvil, a sophomore, said. “Kids are sick of being worried about paying their debt when they get out of college. I had to take out a lot of loans, and it’s a burden hanging over your head. Both of us know people who went into the military just because they couldn’t pay their loans.”

As, of course, everyone running for office has known since Demosthenes, if not since Ur of the Chaldees.

There is always some other whose money, resources, can be taken, desires thwarted, in order to achieve the goals of whoever is being addressed. And given that human beings are both selfish and greedy this is a tactic that works. Which is why we're rather grudging about this democracy thing, supporting it because it is less bad than all of the other possibilities. For there are things that do need to be collectively decided and using the power and violence of the State. But those things are few and far between which is why we are democratic minarchists, not supporters of the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy, government, they are for only those things that can only be achieved in that manner and also must actually be achieved. For everything else there's markets and personal liberty. Also known as paying your own damn way into a higher income and a professional job.

Why students should pay their own darn university fees


We know very well that, on average, a university degree increases lifetime income well above the cost of gaining such an education. It's therefore not entirely absurd for us to suggest that those who capture that higher income should be the ones paying the fees to gain the certificate. We also know that part of the reason for greater household income inequality is assortative mating: now, more than was the case, the professionals classes marry other professionals and so on. At least part of that greater household inequality is coming from the fact that we're stratifying into two high earner households, two middle income earner households and so on, all the way to two no earner households, in a manner that hasn't been our historical experience at all.

What we weren't aware of is quite how closely these two points are related:

A study of Denmark by Gustaf Bruze, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, showed that about half of the expected financial gain of attending college derived not from better job prospects but from the chance to meet and marry a higher-earning spouse.

Agreed, it is some time since we essayed forth into the dating market but we do believe that it's much the same as it ever was: people pay for the services of dating agencies. Given that universities now are functioning as dating agencies for those seeking a potentially high earning spouse it seems entirely reasonable to us that those seeking that higher income and economic status who should be paying for the service.

Why should the rest of us be paying tax to aid the ambitious in finding a highly paid spouse?

Our Children need Safeguarding from Regulators


The scandals of Rotherham, Oxford, Hackney etc. have finally alerted government to the need for something more than reviews and reports. Ofsted, after turning a blind eye for years, have been told to get tough. On 14th December the Prime Minister announced that Sunderland children’s services will become a voluntary trust and new service leaders will be appointed to step in and tackle failings in Norfolk and Sandwell children’s services. Of course local authorities could, and should, do better. They see themselves held back not so much by budget cuts, as workloads and the calibre of their staff. The elephant in the room is that both of those problems arise from the bureaucratic, complex and cumbersome system imposed by Whitehall itself. Form-filling comes before child welfare. Child workers are judged on how they spend their time not on the outcomes they achieve. Lord Laming pointed that out in his report to government back in 2003 yet the Department for Education continues to point the finger rather than reform the system and the regulators.

If the system were streamlined, higher calibre staff could be recruited, morale would improve and outcomes enhanced. For example, Amanda Kelly, of iMPOWER, has shown that Ofsted is more part of the problem than part of the solution (

The government chose Norfolk Children’s Services to be a whipping boy on the basis of the Ofsted October report. It makes interesting reading: many improvements are cited as well as faults. The casual reader would not be able to conclude whether the progress is, or is not, good enough. Ofsted, however, labels almost everything as “inadequate” without any evidence of that. No performance measures are reported still less comparisons with prior years, other local authorities or standards that should be met. There are no measures of achievements, i.e. outcomes, because Ofsted, as usual, is preoccupied with leadership and how child workers spend their time – not that there are any measures of that either.

The head of Essex Children’s Services has been appointed to clean out, within three month’s, Norfolk’s alleged Augean stable. Clearly Essex is deemed “best practice”. Put the latest Norfolk and Essex Ofsted reports side by side and something interesting emerges. There are no performance measures in the Essex report either. Some areas of improvement are noted along with some faults. The only substantive difference is that the word “inadequate” in the Norfolk report is replaced by “good” in the Essex one. No measurement of what is achieved versus what should be achieved.

With regulators like this, is it any wonder that our children are being failed?

Sense at last on the net migration cap


Few issues divide opinion as much as the net migration cap. The vast majority of the public think immigration is far too high. A small minority – myself included – is more liberal on the issue. Which is why I was encouraged to hear that George Osborne has, risking the wrath of the home secretary, indicated that foreign students will be excluded from official migration figures. It’s entirely possible, of course, that this is no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the news last week that net migration hit a new high of 336,000 in the 12 months to June. The news undermines both the Tories’ unachievable aim of reducing net migration to the low tens of thousands, and ministers’ increasingly fierce rhetoric on the subject.

But education is one of this country’s great success stories. Every year, thousands of students come here to study. Yet the government has made it difficult for them to enter, expensive to stay while studying, and virtually impossible to remain in the UK when their courses are finished, even though, as the Chancellor has pointed out, the British public is far more concerned with “permanent” migrants.

Migration Observatory research in 2011 found that only 29 per cent of the public included students among the groups that they think about when they think about immigrants, far less than the other major groups (asylum applicants, workers and family migrants). Of the students who arrived in 2006, only 17 per cent remained in the UK in 2011, and only 32 per cent of people want student numbers reduced. They’re right: we should encourage the best and brightest students to stay in Britain after graduating. We have a significant comparative advantage in higher education and if we fail to retain the best talent, we are wasting our excellent educational resources.

The government’s adherence to its crude migration target is clouding the debate on the costs and benefits of immigration, and threatening the UK’s reputation as an open, competitive economy. Excluding students from the cap would mitigate some of the harm caused by the arbitrary cap to British business – which has presented them from hiring the best programmers, engineers and scientists from around the world. It is often thought that only large corporations, especially within the financial sectors, recruit non-EU migrants. This is far from the truth: companies of all sizes and sectors benefit from employing non-EU migrant staff.

The government’s policies on immigration aren’t working. But excluding students from the net migration cap is a step in the right direction.

The point of government is to provide what the voters want, right?


Yes, we know this is from the Mail and that it has to do with property prices. But still:

The row over ‘new’ grammar schools escalated yesterday after experts warned that many families could be priced out of areas where they are built. Estate agents said that the cost of homes near the new satellite school in Sevenoaks, Kent – which was controversially given the go-ahead last week – is expected to jump by ten per cent. A similar effect would be seen in other parts of the country where similar schools are expected to open, including Maidenhead in Berkshire and Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

We know very well that houses in the catchment areas of good schools are more expensive than those in the catchment areas of poor ones. It's part of our evidence kit that people desire schools to be good.

Here we are being offered evidence that the creation of a grammar school increases house prices. That is thus, again and as above, evidence that people desire there to be grammar schools.

Which leads to a small musing on that democracy thing. Which is that government is supposed to provide what the people want to have provided by government. That's rather the point of the whole exercise in fact. And thus if we have evidence that people desire grammar schools then government should be providing grammar schools. Because democracy.

We can in fact go further too. A refusal of government to provide the desired grammar schools is in fact a denial of democracy. All of which makes the continued rejection of such schools by the left somewhat problematic: for they are the ones who rail on about the values of democracy, aren't they?

Addressing the real problem of social mobility in education


Social mobility is a desirable aspect of a modern society and it can be broadly defined as the ability of individuals from underprivileged backgrounds to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Education is both an important and necessary determinant of future earnings[1]. If we are to tackle social immobility, then we must have an education system that is inclusive and not divisive. That being said, it is a problem that the UK cannot seem to solve.

A commonly accepted measurement of social mobility is to compare the academic performance of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) with their ineligible counterparts, throughout the duration of their school career.

Let us first look at the attainment gap[2], which reveals a telling story:

graph 1

Percentage achieving ‘Level 4’ in English and Maths at KS2, age 11

graph 2

Percentage achieving ‘A* to C’ in English and Maths at GCSE, age 16

graph 3

Percentage achieving 2+ A-levels, age 19

Across 3 age groups, improvements in social mobility in terms of educational attainment over the past 10 years have been limited – if present at all. Even in light of the slightest signs of improvement, it would take decades to reach parity – and even this is uncertain amidst the unnerving cycle of politics. However regardless of political persuasion, it is difficult to argue against the fundamental fact that a premium for economically advantaged children exists., or in other words, a handicap on the underprivileged.

The difference amongst political commentators arises from the way in which we wish to tackle this problem.


A leftist approach on two fronts

Do nothing - Sweden is a better society to be lower class in[3]

The American Dream is a mere illusion and we should learn from the Swedish. Our futures are determined by our surnames and those of aristocratic descent are destined for a life of luxury. For those of us that are born into less privileged families, we need to accept our fate and it is the moral duty of the state to protect us from the Five Giant Evils[4].

A National Education Service[5]

Enter Jeremy Corbyn. As we have a lifelong healthcare service in the NHS, it is only right that we have one for education: the NES. By modelling the NES on the same building blocks that founded the NHS, we should “invest in learning from cradle to grave”. This will provide the opportunity for anyone throughout their lives to learn new skills or retrain.


Dismantling one argument at a time

We should indeed protect the most vulnerable in society, but following a Nordic-style system of state protection could well prove counterintuitive and lead to an upward debt spiral, burdening generations ahead. Transitioning into a vastly different model is costly and time-consuming, with no guarantee of success. Whilst unequal distribution of goods is a natural product of capitalism, we can still limit its impact. But trying to mitigate the consequences of failed mobility means we lose sight of the real problem at hand. By doing this, we create more problems for ourselves in the form of state-dependency and so forth.

Indeed, education is a right and not a privilege, which is why it should always remain free in one form or another. However, the NES is one step too far, and Corbyn’s proposition of an NHS-style education system is a dangerous one, given that healthcare costs spiralled from the get-go (and in fact exponentially) up until recent measures were implemented to curb this trend.

graph 4

In times when our government should be austere, such a policy would reverse the progress we have made over the past 5 years. Corbyn’s utopian vision of the NES is ultimately unsustainable and it could very well do more harm than good without yielding noticeable improvements in social mobility.


A call for structural reform

Our struggle is not financial, and therefore money will not solve the problem of failed mobility. Instead, it is structural and lies within the system itself. From an anecdotal perspective, grammar schools are a great vehicle to climb the socioeconomic ladder – but not in its current form. It is true that often the advocates of grammar schools are those who themselves have benefitted from such experiences, and there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that such an opportunity for upward mobility is not widespread enough. That is not to say that grammar schools are per se bad for social mobility, but rather their current system of selection is fundamentally flawed and is in drastic need of change.

Hadow’s The Education of the Adolescent (1926)[6] formed the principle of primary and secondary school segregation at age 11. On this premise and with the introduction of the tripartite system of education, grammar school entry was determined on the basis of 11-plus performances. Of the remaining grammar schools in the country, selection is still being conducted in similar fashion. The problem with this method is that the age of 11 is arbitrary, out-dated and untested to any sophisticated academic standard. In any case, the age is merely a historical accident more than anything else, yet this issue is often very little discussed.

Rigorous academic research needs to be undertaken to find a fair age to test children’s true, underlying intellectual maturity. In fact, evidence finds that choosing an incorrect age can be detrimental to a child’s development and in doing so inhibit the ability for the underprivileged to climb the social ladder. Research additionally finds that failing the 11-plus, for many, has proven to be psychologically scarring by limiting self-confidence. As a result, many do not dedicate themselves as much to education to avoid remembering previous failures. This characteristic can be detrimental to professional development in the working world, thereby placing a lifelong glass ceiling on career trajectory.[7]

The consequence of selecting an incorrect age makes hiring tutors for entrance exams an attractive investment for the middle and upper classes. This means that in addition to academic research on intellectual maturity, there is also a need to tutor-proof entrance exams, otherwise there will become – as there is to some degree today – a culture of testing on the basis of wealth over intelligence. By levelling the playing field, only then can education become merit-based.


Steps forward

We have discussed a variety of evidence which suggests that there is a need to modify our current education system and in particular we must introduce a fairer way of testing children on the basis of merit and not wealth. In our current system, the underprivileged are subject to an unfair and unmeritocratic method of selection. Statistics show the extent to which this is true, with students of grammar schools being less likely to be eligible for Free School Meals than those in non-selective schools. The Sutton Trust found that less than 3% of grammar school students were eligible, which is meagre compared to the non-grammar average of 18%.

Only once these criteria are satisfied will grammar schools be a true vehicle for social mobility and in doing so the educational attainment handicap of underprivileged children can be reduced. The answer is reform.

We have justified the existence of grammar schools and what they can have the potential to achieve if executed correctly. If things stay as they are, though, those who are unsuccessful in grammar school selection are left behind in comprehensive schools, destined for academic underachievement. This is driven by a combination of the psychological scarring aforementioned and the low quality of teaching standards in comprehensive schools.

A free economy and strong communities honour the dignity of every person, rewarding effort with justice, promoting upward mobility, and building solidarity among citizens.”

-Paul Ryan, US politician

In order to achieve this and contrary to what Corbyn and many others believe, the education sector needs to move away from the hands of the state. The introduction of academy schools under firstly New Labour and furthered by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a step in the right direction. By taking schools out of local authority red tape regulations, schools were given a greater degree of autonomy leading to improvements in teaching standards. This is because free choice over teacher pay structures means that good teachers are rewarded adequately. Not only this, but also the greater funding from central government and private institutions can be invested into providing the best facilities. Autonomy over one’s curriculum additionally allows for a flexible learning process – one that is conducive to innovative teaching techniques and allows for more creative thinking amongst students.

Consequently, academies improve the quality of a school. Our current government can go further by converting more struggling schools into academies in areas of local deprivation. This is a simple method to reduce the premium, as there is evidence to suggest a positive correlation between poorer students attending poorly performing schools. Indeed, research has shown that academies have shown positive effects on social mobility[9]. Since the Education Act of 2010, most academies have been ‘converters’, whereby previously successful schools have become autonomous. Given that these schools are located disproportionately in rich regions, much more needs to be done to support the conversion of underperforming schools into the alternative ‘sponsored’ academies.

graph 5

If less advantaged children remain unable to make the most of our education system, there is no way of achieving a socially mobile society. Urgent action is needed to curb the trend and it is important that the poorest in society receive a good and just education, as a means to escape poverty and improve their living standards.

Scientific research suggests that a child’s brain development is most malleable when youngest, which implies that changes need to be made at a primary level too to lift the performance of state-funded schools to that of private ones. Whilst primary schools have been given the opportunity to convert to academies, this has not been widespread enough for one reason or another, as seen below.

graph 6

What’s worse is that even with the lack of primary academies, the trend of underperforming schools not being converted proportionally to sponsored academies is again prevalent at primary level. The number of converters far exceeds the number of sponsored academies at both primary and secondary level (as seen in the table above previously).


Lessons from Iceland

We can learn of lot from the Icelandic model of education, where the level of social mobility, as measured by the influence of parental socioeconomic background on a child’s secondary education, is the highest of all OECD countries (country code ISL).

graph 7

We look to why this may be the case and pay particular attention to the Icelandic education system below:

graph 8

Academic separation is not undertaken until 16 and in doing so a level playing field is created. ‘Compulsory’ schooling from 6 to 16 ensures that each student has gone through the same educational experience. In fact, most of the Scandinavian countries follow this type of education system, which is perhaps why they fare so well. Whilst greater mobility may be the case because of the high levels of educational spending, its structure is also something that stands out as different to the UK’s and something that is worth considering.

As mentioned, the first major difference is that academic separation starts at the age of 16.

Secondly, even though Iceland’s education spending as a percentage of GDP is in line with other Nordic countries, which have previously been higher than average, what makes Iceland so mobile is its special focus on pre-primary and primary schooling. This type of schooling is an integral part of child development, as we have previously established.

It is not the case that Iceland’s educational spending is extreme, given that its average expenditure per student per year at $9180 is lower than the OECD average of $9487[9]. Even more interestingly, Iceland spends a lot more on pre-primary and primary schooling than secondary and tertiary schooling and this is reflected upon in the table below.

graoh 9

This has resulted in lower than average class sizes in infancy years, where in 2011 Iceland had the lowest student-to-teacher ratio throughout OECD countries in pre-primary and primary schools at 6:1 and 10:1 respectively. As a comparison, the UK average public primary school class has 26 students – 5 higher than the OECD average. Coupled with the fact that British primary school teachers work for fewer hours than average, there is a great deal that has to change in the current primary education structure to ensure that children in the most important period of development are receiving enough individual attention.

graph 10

Source: 2010, OECD (Argentina, China, Indonesia) and UNESCO Institute for Statistics, World Education Indicators programme

As such, Corbyn’s NES plans are unfounded and unsustainable. Given the UK’s circumstances, a spending increase can only be justified if spent on primary schooling. The UK averages higher education expenditure across primary, secondary and tertiary schooling than the OECD average, much of which was fuelled by New Labour. Despite this, the annual spend per pre-primary student is only $6493 compared to the average of $6670. A better approach would be to shift spending from secondary and tertiary schools to pre-primary and primary. Disregarding the lack of spending in pre-primary schooling for a moment, the lack of teaching hours and overcrowded classrooms makes it all the more necessary that the education sector drives for efficiency gains through privatisation.

There is no quick-fix solution to social immobility, but with fundamental structural reform in our education system, long-overdue progress can be made.


Sources cited










Recent books in the ASI's pile


The ASI receives more books than it can get round to giving a full review of, but here are some particular interesting recent ones you might want to check out.

Describing itself as a work of 'creative non-fiction' it's a wide-ranging thesis on the city. Get it if you love their wonderful twitter account.

Probably one to look at in the library, given the price, this handbook seems to be the most authoritative work from practitioners and experts in the area; a more scholarly take on The Beautiful Tree.

I'm really glad this book exists.

Tyler Cowen says this is 'one of the very best philosophical treatments of libertarian thought, ever' and what can I add to that?

The list of reviews on the back is very impressive: Dani Rodrik, Mike Munger, Lant Pritchett, Tyler Cowen, and the topic is hugely interesting.