All entries for Wednesday 16 March 2005

March 16, 2005

Private Vs State schools. Should we aim for equality?

Some stream of consciousness writing on equality of education provision:

I don’t think it’s easy or at all possible to say whether inequality in whatever form is ‘just’ or ‘unjust’. As things stand, there exists a gap in the quality of services provided by state and private schools. On average, private schools allow pupils to achieve academic results far above average as well as allowing personal growth through extracurricular activities.

Why does such a gap exist? Private schools have access to better teachers (though higher salaries) and more resources in the form of technology and learning materials. Private schools have smaller class sizes and there is an inherent culture of excellence; an environment which places great emphasis on achievement. Finally, such schools have selection criteria which (arguably) filter out those likely to perform below average.

How can this quality differential be resolved?

Firstly, we could abolish private schools all together, or introduce legislation which makes their financial state untenable e.g. by preventing such institutions from claiming charity status and receiving tax breaks. Demand for these schools exists as there is a deficiency in provision elsewhere. Their abolition is a gross manipulation of the market for education and would do nothing to raise the quality of existing schools. Quality will remain low at best and the system will need to absorb a huge number of new students.

Secondly, we could bring about convergence by simply improving state schools. If there were an easy solution to the problems faced, we would have seen its implementation years ago. Despite endless initiatives and growth in funding the quality gap persists. It’s said that bad policy breeds bad policy. Perhaps state provision places limits on how good the system can be, and efforts to improve it in its current state will be wholly ineffective. I reckon it’s impossible for the state to match services provided by schools relying on academic results for survival. The state system can provide below par services with no fear of demise in funding or demand. There are no real pressures to move towards greater efficiency and quality.

Finally, we could explore alternatives to state provision of education. I’m wary of saying we should leave the whole process to market forces as education is key if there is to be any social mobility whatsoever. Education is one of those things I’d hate to see people do without. I don’t think the current quality differential is so large that those within the system will be denied opportunities available to others in the long run.

Even if it’s possible to match the private sector, given the blatant diminishing returns to capital, the process of raising funds would simply create more serious problems elsewhere. Greater funding though tax inevitably creates negative incentives at the limit, and reduces the country’s economic competitiveness. That’s without considering the non-existent political will to inflict further tax increases on the population and the numerous other institutions which face fiscal problems such as the NHS. Monetary constraints therefore prevent progress beyond a certain point.

To summarise, the possibilities available for creating ‘equality of opportunity’ are severely flawed. We must accept that inequality is here to say even if it’s not ideal. We should not consider equality as a goal to be worked towards. There is a clear trade off between equality and overall quality, market responsiveness and competitiveness. Earnest efforts to create a state system equal to that of the private sector will prove ineffective and will create problems elsewhere. I have no faith whatsoever in the government’s ability to consciously design a system which works as well as one motivated by market forces. The government should be happy with an 'adequate' system. If it wants real quality, it's going about things the wrong way.

March 2005

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