Saturday, 25 April 2009

A lesson for the government

An interesting proposal has been made by the Conservative Party to release primary schools from central and local governmental control. It is one of those truly inspired policies that comes along from time to time. What makes it so interesting is its acknowledges that teachers, headteachers and school governors might actually know better than politicians what is best for the pupils they have to educate. I have never understood where politicians get the magical powers that make them all-knowing and all-wise, this policy seems to accept that there are no such magical powers.

The proposal links two themes dear to my heart. One is that services paid for out of taxes do not have to be provided from the centre. The second is that government ministers cannot possibly know how best to deliver any service at ground level.

I am perpetually intrigued by the very concept of central government directing the provision of anything to the public across the whole country. Take food as a most obvious example. We all need to shop for food every week or so. Making food available at affordable prices is an essential service, arguably no service is more essential. Yet we don't hear many calling for the production and supply of food to be nationalised and run by the government. The point can be taken further. Is there anyone who would argue that the government, through a National Food Service, could provide the range and quality of food provided by the existing supermarket chains? It's completely untenable, utterly laughable. Of course the cost of setting up a scheme would be prohibitive but it is not that that makes it untenable, it is the idea that centralised direction of a monopoly provider could even begin to approach the efficiency and flexibility of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose, Lidl and the rest. So why should it be that the provision of good quality education requires direct management from Whitehall?

I read various figures for the average annual cost of school education ranging from £6,000 per pupil to about £9,000. The actual figure really doesn't matter very much, what does matter is delivering an appropriate education for every child. This requires schools to be able to cater to a wide range of abilities and to be flexible enough to vary their approach year-by-year as the new intake varies in ability. Only those at the metaphorical coalface can do this. They can be, and are, told by government that a certain level of test must be passed by a certain percentage of pupils at a certain age but that doesn't make it happen. Nor does it make it possible where the pupils of the relevant age group do not have the ability to pass the prescribed test in sufficient numbers.

To my mind the biggest problem with government-directed education is that doing the best for the pupils comes second to doing the best for the government's chances of reelection. Every year we hear ludicrous claims being made about increased performance when what is measured is the ability of schools to squeeze pupils through arbitrary tests. The government boasts "look how well we are doing" when they are doing nothing other than forcing schools to follow a particular path that will result in statistics the government hopes to use for its political advantage. Indeed, I find the very concept of government claiming it has achieved anything in education to be deeply offensive. Teachers and parents combine to elicit the best from children, government ministers add nothing of value. Getting government out of schools will be a good start, it will allow teachers to educate in a manner appropriate to their little charges rather than in a manner appropriate to the opinion polls.

That is not to say that there is no legitimate role for government in school education. In fact it has two extremely important roles. The first is to fund schools from taxation. There is no other way of paying for universal school education than through taxes. The second is to supervise standards. This second point is where, in my opinion, they have got it completely wrong. Let me explain why.

I'll go back to food to explain the point, because I am a fat boy and I like food. The supermarket chains I mentioned above, and all other sellers of food, could try to foist unfit meat and fish on their customers. They would probably get away with it most times because any illness suffered is as likely to be attributed to the cook as to the ingredients. They cannot and do not do so because the law requires certain standards to be met. Those standards are imposed by government through laws passed in Parliament. They are basic quality standards that set the culture for the industry. Supermarkets know that any breach of the quality standards could damage their business through adverse publicity far more than any fine imposed by a court could ever do. But without a legal standard setting the benchmark for adverse publicity it is impossible to know whether they would keep the quality of their products as high as it is. And the same principle extends across the whole range of what they sell, the law requires a minimum standard to be met and that pervades the very culture of retail food sales.

Schools don't sell products in the way supermarkets do, they provide a service, but that is a distinction without a difference. The provision of services is subject to legal quality controls just like the sale of goods. Failure to maintain a satisfactory standard of service leaves you open to legal action by your customers and to damaging adverse publicity. I have never heard of any such claim being made against an independent school. Perhaps such claims could have been made but instead the parents chose to take their child out of the school and send him or her elsewhere rather than wasting time reopening old wounds through the courts. The role of government is to keep the law under review and to propose changes to Parliament if a deficiency is found. In that way, and that way only, does government have a legitimate supervisory role over the quality of education provided in schools. With parents as direct customers and schools competing to attract their money normal commercial pressures will operate to keep standards as high as can be afforded, just as happens in the private education sector.

Not only does government have no magical powers to deliver good quality education but education itself is not a magical business, it is just another service. It is an important one but so is selling food. What we know for certain is that central direction and interference have not resulted in universally high standards in state schools. The system has had long enough to prove itself and it has been found wanting. The Conservative's idea is a radical change from the status quo. The government says it would be expensive to implement, I doubt that very much because it will (or should) involve the removal of vast amounts of bureaucracy through which current meddling is effected every year. The unions are against it lock stock and barrel. No higher praise can ever be bestowed on a new policy.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this proposal is that it marks a shift of primary responsibility for education from government to parents, thereby putting it firmly where it should be. Education will then be funded from the centre but run by the schools themselves. There lies the heart of the matter ... state-funded. State-funded does not need to mean state-run. We know that from the simple fact that some children are funded by the state to attend independent schools. We know it also from state funding of medical procedures at private hospitals when NHS hospitals cannot provide surgery without undue delay. We know it again from state funding of legal advice and representation. The quality of the service is determined by the people providing the service not by the source of funding. And the quality of the service they provide is driven by the need to keep the quality high or lose business to a competitor. It is always possible that a particular school will fail miserably to provide a satisfactory standard of education for its pupils ... or is it? Does that happen in the private sector? I don't know the answer to that question but I do know what will happen in that situation, the school will have to change its ways pretty sharpish or it will have no pupils.


dmc said...

Well said,get the government out of schools and stop the political and pc interference.Make teaching an honourable prefession again. Encourage children to think for themselves and not wait to be led like sheep.
Give them education,not indoctrination.

mister_choos said...

This would be a good start. It isn't a new idea though. The last Conservative government introduced grant maintained schools. It shouldn't be an option for schools. Go further and introduce a voucher system and cut out the LEAs completely. That would get rid of a whole parasitic layer that bleeds money from actually teaching kids. That would enable the education budget to be cut AND increase the spending per head on pupils.

BTW Mr. Bigot. I think you've been telling porkies about your profession. Your posts are far too legible and you manage to put things in such everyday terms that there is no way you can have been in the legal profession!

Ayrdale said...

FB, love your comment at WuWT re submarines "breaking through the hymen of Mother Nature."

Worth a post on your site I think, plus of course those amazing pix, demonstrating that Arctic ice melt is ho-hum.

Cheers from NZ.

Barnacle Bill said...

To have children leaving education who can not even read and write properly, after over ten years of NuLabor policies, is to my mind criminal.
Its like chopping an arm and a leg off, they are crippled for the rest of their lives.
My two daughters experienced only NuLabor education, I could not make head nor tail of how, or what they were taught at school.
Luckily I was able to give them the benefit of my schooling, so they have not turned out too badly!
But to say that politicians, especially of the socialist bent, know anything about educating our children; is like saying that a former politics lecturer/tv journalist would make an excellent financial advisor.

Mr said...

Devil is in the detail though.

Let's say in one area there are 2 schools, A and Z. A tops the league tables on every measurable metric, Z scrapes the barrel on each. Also assume the grant given to every child's parent per child is £5K/year, and each school can fit 1000 pupils into its classrooms.

How are you going to distribute places for children in that area? Every parent will want their kid at school A. How does school A decide which kids they will accept that year?

Allow school A to increase its yearly fee to 8K and have parents top up the difference? I can hear the screams of the Left bellowing "elitist" already, and yet many schools are not set up for rapid expansion from a classroom space angle alone, unless they cram the kids 40 per classroom designed for 30 and risk losing some ranking.

Do it on a first come first served basis? In which case parents will scramble to put a child's name down the minute they're born - in the 11 years to secondary school, that school might have gone downhill hugely so the parents will probably hedge and try to enrol in other local schools. Which will make resource planning a nightmare.

Do you only allow school A to accept the 1000 pupils who live closest?

How will school Z manage to attract pupils next year? By dropping their yearly fee and allowing parents to trouser the remainder of the 5K? What would happen to the fixed assets of the school if they didn't have enough pupils to run a school?

Economies of scale will kick in, too, imagine if school A manages to expand to teach 5000 pupils. It'll be able to have better computer rooms, sports facilities and so on. But is a super sized school such a good place for a child to grow up in? I'd say between 100-200 pupils is the limit for a given year group before the school character stops being akin to a friendly village and becomes more like a lawless city.

The above reads like I don't like the idea; I do, very much. Putting the power back into the hands of parents can only be a great idea. I am just wary that the implementation could introduce other flaws and distortions that need to be ironed out first.

Anyone got a decent proposal as to how these'd work?