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November 17, 2004
Less is Good, Nothing is Better: Sean Gabb on How the State Can Improve British Education

SeanGabb.jpgSean Gabb's latest Free Life Commentary, Number 128, is up. It is an uncompromising attack on the entire principle and practice of State Education. Sean describes the present mess, and concludes:

The only answer is to get the state entirely out of education. The education budget should not be expanded, or its administration reformed. It should simply be abolished. That 49 billion - now, I believe, 63 billion - should be handed back to the people in tax cuts; and these should be directed at the poorest taxpayers. The schools should be sold off or given away, and the bureaucrats be made redundant. The people should then be left to arrange by themselves for the education of their children.

The argument that parents would not or could not do this falls flat on any inspection of the third world, where parents make often heavy sacrifices and choose often highly effective schemes of education. There is also the experience of our own past. A generation ago, E.G. West showed how growing numbers of working class people in the 19th century paid for and supervised the education of their children. The beginning of state education in 1870 should be seen as ruling class coup against an independent sector that looked set to marginalise its legitimation ideology. And that reaction was promoted on the basis of fraudulent statistics.

Left to themselves, it is inconceivable that parents would not do substantially better than those presently in charge of state education. How they might do this is for them to decide. Some would pay for a conventional independent education. Some would send their children to schools run by their ministers of religion, or by charitable bodies. Some would educate their children at home. Many do this already, by the way; and Paula Rothermel of Durham University caused a stir in 2002, when she looked at a sample of children educated at home and found they performed consistently better in standard tests than schoolchildren - indeed, she found that the children of people like bus drivers and shop assistants were receiving a better education than those committed to the care of state-certified teachers. Parents could hardly do worse than the present arraignments manage. They could easily do better.

This is not a "left" or a "right" wing cause. It is about allowing children to get an education which is not directed to moulding them to believe as suits the convenience of their betters, and which really will enable them to make the best of their own lives.

Such are precisely my opinions. The only reason I do not belabour my readers here every day with such views quite as relentlessly as I might (aside from the fact that this would make this blog even duller), is that opinions is all that they would be, coming from me. I have very little direct experience of what Britain's education system is like in reality (although I am now beginning to acquire it). Sean Gabb, on the other hand, has taught for the last several years in one of the less stellar (i.e. not one of these) of London's universities, and daily confronts both what the products of Britain's state education system are like, and, equally important, how those products compare with the products of the education systems in other countries. When he compares, for example, the English fluency of young English people with that of young African people (as he does earlier in this piece), he has actual direct knowledge on which to base such comparisons.

On the other hand, Sean has been an uncompromising libertarian for just about as long as I have know him, and this is a case of prejudices refined and informed, rather than merely deduced from his relatively recent day-by-day experiences as an educator. Sean, like me, is predisposed to judge state actions to be, on the whole, bad, and the actions of free people to be, on the whole, good. Some would say that such prejudices render our particular views on education nearly worthless. I would say (and I'm sure Sean also) that if you do not have such prejudices, you should.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:43 PM
Category: Politics
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Comments

The problem with the 1870 comparison is that even into the early years of the 20th century, there was a strong resistance to state provision of education purely so that children could be taken out of the classroom early and put into skill-less, but earning jobs. Whereas in fact this was highly detrimental to future prospects of the children themselves; those who had technical education for longer were far more likely to break the cycle of the crushing poverty.

My worry about homeschooling is that education is often not sufficiently appreciated in this country, and people would take it, rather than an invitation to find alternative educational arrangements for their children, as an excuse not to educate them at all. And that is not an argument I think I can agree with.

Comment by: Ken on November 18, 2004 11:36 AM

Because I appreciate education my children are home educated.

Comment by: jax on November 18, 2004 10:15 PM

Be that as it may, many who wish to have their children out of school do not have as their desire the wish to make their children better educated.

Comment by: Ken on November 18, 2004 11:48 PM

Why do you think this?

Comment by: jax on November 19, 2004 12:30 AM

Because there is so much hostility to any attempts to give teachers disciplinary powers, for example, or the lack of culpability on the part of their children that so many parents try to excuse.

Comment by: Ken on November 19, 2004 04:00 PM

Hm, I think you are confusing different sectors of society here. Teachers are not responsible for disciplining my child, I am. The same with education, whether they are in school or not. Registering your children in school and then not bothering to get them to go, is a very different path to deregistering, or not registering in the first place and setting up to educate your children at home.

Comment by: jax on November 20, 2004 08:38 AM

Aargh, I just posted a long and thoughtful reply to this and it evaporated! Don't you hate it when that happens...

the gist of it is this. There is much confusion of rights and responsibilities atm, in my mind you can't have one without the other. My children are my responsibility, to discipline if they should require it, to educate, whether I do this at home or at school. I'll repeat that, it's important - it remains my responsibility to cause my children to receive education *even* if they go to school. So if they are registered as school pupils, it is my responsibility to ensure they attend. Deciding to deregister (or never register in the first place) is a hugely different thing to just not bothering to send your children to school. Does that clarify the points at all?

Comment by: jax on November 20, 2004 08:44 AM

Aargh, I just posted a long and thoughtful reply to this and it evaporated! Don't you hate it when that happens...

the gist of it is this. There is much confusion of rights and responsibilities atm, in my mind you can't have one without the other. My children are my responsibility, to discipline if they should require it, to educate, whether I do this at home or at school. I'll repeat that, it's important - it remains my responsibility to cause my children to receive education *even* if they go to school. So if they are registered as school pupils, it is my responsibility to ensure they attend. Deciding to deregister (or never register in the first place) is a hugely different thing to just not bothering to send your children to school. Does that clarify the points at all?

Comment by: jax on November 20, 2004 08:45 AM

Bother.

Comment by: jax on November 20, 2004 11:25 AM

Off topic, and to blog technicalities.

jax, glad you got something up. If anyone else has a problem posting a comment which actually results in a comment getting eaten, please do mention it in another comment, or in an email as jax did. I'm not so bothered about comments that are merely delayed and where you have to do the number again, annoying though that is. It's the destruction of potentially very valuable comments that worries me. I'm now copying and pasting before I do the number stuff.

I think the Internet connection to here was very bad yesterday late on (London time), and maybe that was what was causing the jax problem.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on November 20, 2004 03:03 PM

"The problem with the 1870 comparison is that even into the early years of the 20th century, there was a strong resistance to state provision of education purely so that children could be taken out of the classroom early and put into skill-less, but earning jobs. Whereas in fact this was highly detrimental to future prospects of the children themselves; those who had technical education for longer were far more likely to break the cycle of the crushing poverty."

This is an odd and dubious generalisation. Why would parents in the late 19th century have wished to condemn their children to a lifetime of crushing poverty if there was an easy way out? I would suggest that parents both then and now are more likely to have the best interests of their children at heart (and more likely to know what is best for their children in the long run) than any politician or government department.

Comment by: julius on November 21, 2004 12:27 PM

Julius - because the money the children could earn early from unskilled jobs provided quite a strong, if temporary, relief from the crushing poverty that could be provided. It wasn't universal, but schemes like the half-time scheme in Lancashire which actually took children out of school early were strongly defended when politicians wanted to change them.

Jax - I think the problem with the argument presented in the article above is that it suggests by abolishing state schools altogether, every parent will automatically wish to cater for the education of their children. There is undoubtedly hostility towards education in many sectors in this country, and I think we are also in a different situation to the Third World that is cited above. Taking state provided education away is completely different to not having any education in the first place - just like legalising cannabis after it is banned sends out a different message to not banning it in the first place.

Comment by: Ken on November 21, 2004 12:43 PM

One of the things to look at in the West study is what happened to the British population during the years of his comparative study. He shows a lot of absolute numbers comparing the numbers in education at the start of the 19th century with the years running up to the introduction of compulsory schooling to show that numbers were increasing anyway. They were.

As was the British population. If you compare the numbers going to school as a straight percentage of the population, the situation is a lot less clear and his thesis looks a lot less convincing.

Comment by: Daveon on November 30, 2004 04:37 PM
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