Sell-off the three Rs to really deliver education

Article by John Blundell in The Business

AS I listened to a report that pupils are increasingly “truanting” from schools, it struck me that what we do to children today is akin to what our 18th century Navy did to find recruits – we press-gang them. In the name of “education”, we force teenagers to attend schools, an experience they regard as an unendurable tedium and a waste of time.

Too many British schools are just plain dreadful. The government’s only idea is to pour in more money. I think it is time we gave pupils the dignity of choice. In the VIth form it ought to be the student’s own choice … this would naturally be informed by family affinities and priorities.

“Radical” is one of those words so worn out by overuse it is stale but my proposal is authentically radical. Let us convert every school into a business. Let every teacher become an entrepreneur. The state, which means local authorities, should get out of schooling altogether.

Imagine an educational market in which the customers reigned – not the LEA bureaucrats.

It is part of our shared British mental furniture that we assume private schooling is exclusively for the affluent. We need to shatter this. It is the families with the most modest incomes that would be most enhanced by selling off every school. They could escape the mediocrity of “bog standard comprehensives”.

One of my heroes is Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University. He is the leading exponent of converting schools from the state to the market. Tooley’s recent paper on private schools for the poor has just won the International Finance Corporation prize for explaining how India and China are leading the way in letting students escape capture by dud state schools.

You might think the USA might offer some free market school ideas but, with a few honourable and interesting exceptions, American schooling is frozen in the aspic of state schooling. It is my view the acclaimed success of the new Indian and Chinese private schools – for the poorest families – is a phenomenon that will reach Britain soon.

The National Union of Teachers and other UK school interest groups will fight this thinking with vehemence until we satisfy them their incomes and professional pleasure can be boosted by schools as trading entities. We all recall from our own schooldays that there are some teachers who have the mysterious quality to engage young minds. Others are entirely and permanently useless. Private schools would double or treble the income of teachers with flair. The dud ones will have to improve or leave the profession.

The standard excuses for the monstrous LEA empires are to protect children from “negligent parents” and the cluster of illusions called “equality”. The worst schools where reading, writing and arithmetic elude most pupils are engines of duncedom not of equality.

There are many ideas on how to shift schools out of the bureaucratic zone and into the entrepreneurial one. The dominant one is perhaps the voucher. This empowers the family with a paper redeemable for the same sum as the LEA now spends. I think this simple reform would transform schools. It may be the idea of attending one building from 0900 to 1600 would evaporate. For example I can envisage Mondays being IT day where pupils learn computer age skills at IT workshops in local companies.

Would “Modern Languages” be taught at all? How much more fun to spend your voucher on months in Martinique or Guadeloupe – returning with fluent French and a tan. I like to imagine pupils might be allowed to be entrepreneurs at diverse ventures … not demeaning apprenticeships but real trading: real risk taking, which means real learning.

The inelastic, unadaptable notion of a “school” is probably obsolete. It would have eroded away long ago if people had choice.

Professor EG West confounds the notion that before there was a state school programme everyone went ignorant but toffs. West has shown children were not up chimney stacks or working the looms as caricature history has it. They were attending penny schools paid for by parents out of their frugal incomes. West found, to his surprise, that Victorian voluntary and religious schools were educating most of the population without a bureaucrat in sight. So what I propose is perhaps only a reversion to previous successful practices.

As matters stand, politicians, of every party, would be intimidated by such notions. Selling council houses was regarded as outlandish until it was attempted. It proved highly popular. Privatising the sleepy and expensive nationalised industries was regarded as mere science fiction until it was tried. Our schools are just another nationalised industry. They exhibit all the very worst and defining features of nationalised industries.

I applaud the truants. They are dissatisfied customers who see no value in the grim institutions in which we incarcerate them. Urging the privatisation of schooling is not a proposal to assist the rich. It will liberate the poor – and educate them.

John Blundell is Director General o