We all know the tune. Private schools are a hotbed of elitism, pillars of a neo-feudal class system where people’s position in life is determined by birth and family name, not merit.
Not so, argues this week’s edition of The Economist. The success of private schools in producing well-educated alumni who find their way into top positions is “not based on money, but on organisation“. And, “working-class Britons struggle because they are overwhelmingly educated in poor government-run schools.”
Apparently, many of us have an emotional aversion against the idea that something as mundane as pecuniary incentives should play a role in education. Should teachers and headmasters not uphold a professional ethos, instead of engaging in money-grabbing? Should they not see it as their mission to assist in the formation of comprehensively educated personalities?
Certainly, but that does not mean that economic common sense suddenly loses all effect at the school gates. In most businesses, suppliers know that if they do not keep their customers happy, there will be no nice holidays this year, and no new car either. Where this simple incentive structure is absent, targets are a highly imperfect substitute, and better ones have not yet been found.
The Economist concedes that at least in Britain, the private education sector consists of a luxury market segment and virtually nothing else, but goes on to explain that this is not an inherent feature of private education. “Parents might grumble at what the state provides, but unless it is worth almost nothing, most will balk at paying all over again out of taxed income.” They quote Professor James Tooley’s fascinating research, which shows most private education services in the world could not be further away from the high-end of the market. In the poorest parts of the world, Tooley found ingenious people who managed to create schools out of nothing. They also quote Civitas’ Robert Whelan, who explains that in the little that there is of a low-cost education market in the UK, “planning departments put all sorts of obstacles in your way”.
There are alternatives. In social democratic Sweden with its quasi-voucher scheme, private schools now have a higher market share than in the alleged home of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. Sweden’s political establishment is good at lambasting the free market rhetorically, while implementing reforms that allow the market at least some constrained space. Britain’s political establishment is good at doing the opposite.