Friday, July 24, 2009

School choice

These sentences, from a piece by Neal Lawson, have been the subject of some debate:

Markets, the mechanism of choice, are designed to allocate the spoils to the winner. That's OK with supermarkets and car makers – it's not OK for the state. We can't have and can't allow schools and hospitals to fail and be replaced by the fittest.
Elsewhere in the piece, Lawson writes:
In essence, markets allocate resources on the basis of matching willing buyers to willing sellers.
That's almost right, whereas his apparent definition in the first quote, that markets are "the mechanism of choice" is not. Choice has many mechanisms. In fact, there's a lot wrong with the first quote. Markets haven't been designed to do anything at all; they simply haven't been designed. They're what we call the process of exchange. In what way are the cabbages on a market stall "spoils"? When we can all go and buy one of the cabbages if we wish, who are the winners and who the losers? In the context of education, where there is no market, the losers are easy to discern; they are the kids who are herded into the schools Lawson insists stay open, even though they are failing.

Lawson then suggests this mechanism is OK for staying alive (eating) and transport (though whether he sticks to that view when discussing transport policy might be another matter), but not for schools. Why not? He doesn't say, the first word of the next sentence is "Second" - he starts another point.

To suggest that it would be wrong for failing schools and hospitals to be replaced by fit ones is just... incredible. No, it's immoral. It amounts to the demand that people die avoidably, and have their life chances blighted, avoidably, in deference to his political dogma. And he even uses the words "fittest" and "fail", this isn't an exaggeration on my part.

The whole piece is like this, though. For some comment from the rational left we have to turn elsewhere. Chris Dillow suggests that for a market in education to succeed, schools have to be scalable. Why? A failing school would present, in a market, several opportunities - scaling is one of them for other schools, but there's also takeover and the opening of new competitive ventures. In a market, with lags and imperfections for sure, all of these things would happen.

The last decade has proved that state provisioning of education is prone to all the problems of, well, state provisioning. Apparatchiks send their kids to elite schools, the affluent and connected use their connections to remain affluent, inequalities increase, quality falls, tractor production rises to historic new heights.

This isn't entirely how I'd do things, but here's a suggestion for the non-authoritarian, anti-managerialist left: ban all parental input to school costs. No parents can pay school fees. But all children have vouchers and parents can send their kids where they want. Bad schools can fail, and the kids of parents who don't care as well as of those who do will have to go to better ones. Let people lift the quality up, rather the state drag it down.

Instead of parents trying to move to areas where there are good schools, pushing up property prices, creating new inequalities, there would be incentives for successful schools to open in areas where there are none at the moment. Mountains would start moving towards Mohammed.

How would the right cope with that suggestion? Any objections would be impossible to disguise as anything other than a wish to preserve hereditary privilege. As things stand, the imbecility of people like Lawson, demanding, explicitly, that failing schools be allowed to continue to fail - and in practice that means failing the most disadvantaged kids - masks all other considerations.


Curmudgeon said...


I normally agree wholeheartedly with your posts but:

ban all parental input to school costs.

How would this be achieved, in practice, without large infringements on liberty and the necessary state apparatus to impose such a ban? What would constitute a school, or `school costs?

It would hardly ensure equality of opportunity anyway. What would be done about the hiring of private tutors? Why would spending money to improve your offsprings chances be any different in principle than spending time (through helping them with homework, say)? Or would we also ban parents from doing that? What about home education?


Any objections would be impossible to disguise as anything other than a wish to preserve hereditary privilege.

Or perhaps merely a wish for individual liberty?

And what is wrong with hereditary privilege if, as I infer from the context, you mean an individual choosing to help their children with the means at their disposal?

Peter Risdon said...

I don't advocate this, though perhaps I put that a bit too gently when I said it isn't entirely how I'd do things. It just strikes me as a good tactic for parts of the left. I've been thinking about doctrinal purity and tactical policy making recently.

I think it would be a good tactic.

Personally, I think parental input is vital for children, in every form it can take, and it's positively evil to try to block it just because a small minority are not good parents.

TDK said...

It's hard to see how you would stop parents contributing to school budgets.

Currently my children's schools use several means to extend their budget. From the use of jumble sales & raffles to the "suggested" cost of school trips with the proviso that should insufficient parents pay the full price (or more), the trip would be cancelled.

Any socialist articulating a desire to stop such things would struggle. Moreover it's clear that transfers go on under the radar already. It's doubtful this could be prevented in toto.

As to Chris' suggestion that school quality is limited by scalability. Grow too large and the quality goes. If so, this suggests that as a failing school shrank it might improve.

Not that this is necessarily true but it is no less plausible than schools cannot be scaled.

Not enough is said about the impact of different curricula and pedagogies. It seems likely that in a free market schools would start to differentiate or specialise in these matters. Currently the "correct" pedagogies are determined by "experts" (distorted of course by arguments between politicians and the educational establishment - eg. phonics) and then applied to all. Clearly, a market led solution would determine the "right" pedagogies by individual choice. By the same token I would expect to see schools that specialise various curricula.

Trooper Thompson said...

"It seems likely that in a free market schools would start to differentiate or specialise in these matters..."

Absolutely right. A free market would destroy the top-down command-economy-style educational system, which could only be a good thing.