Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is greater investment in education a good idea?

This is partially a reply to my interpretation of Education and the Economy: debunking the philistine myth by Tom Burkard


I've recently seen the argument made that there is little correlation between a high-quality education system and a successful economy. This same argument seems to infer that since you can't teach the exact skill-sets required for a "21st century job" that you should simply reject formalised learning altogether. It also appears to imply that innovation and success are ingrained at birth and that therefore the sensible way to manage an economy is to rely on poaching natural talent from abroad by having the lowest taxation.

Getting into a discussion regarding nature and nurture is way beyond the scope of this post but I find it hard to believe that anyone could seriously accept that the reason rich parents generally have successful children is primarily genetic and nothing at all to do with superior upbringing, education and opportunity.

Whilst it is true that you could create a relatively well-off economy by abandoning state-funded education altogether and instead focusing on free-movement and minimal taxation, this would simply be to profit from other peoples' educational investments; somewhere down the line somebody must raise children and the real discussion we should be having is how to best achieve that.


There is a general perception that Britain's independent schools are a run-away success whilst confidence in the state sector is shaky at best. Although this could well be a false perception and, of course, there are both excellent state schools and terrible independent schools, all empirical evidence reinforces the accuracy of the public's view, whether based around examination results, value-added, progression rates to further/higher education or eventual employment/earnings. In addition to this most people who have the means choose to send their children to independent schools in the UK, even from countries that are viewed as having better state systems than our own.

Overall, I think it's fair to say that the independent educational sector offers something which if it could be successfully replicated in the state sector would add great value to our economy. The next challenge is isolating what is so special about privately-run schools. We can do this by contrasting them to the less successful state sector; state schools are both state-controlled and state-funded.

Independent schools have much greater freedom to teach what they feel is best, using the methods they think are best. Any reader who accepts that different children have different needs will most likely also accept that centralised policy cannot sufficiently cater for these needs, and that only parents can make the best decisions about what type of schooling is best for their individual child. Although there is little firm evidence on the benefits of deregulation, it appears to provide a successful foundation not only for our privately-run schools but also our world-renowned Universities.


The other major difference is funding. The government spends between £5000 and £6000 per annum on each child educated in a state-funded school. In contrast, average day school rates in the independent sector are £11500, roughly twice those in the state sector. You may well ask yourself what exactly privately-run schools do with this money and how it's translated into additional benefits for their pupils. Well, two areas spring to mind; smaller class sizes and superior extra-curricular activities.

It is right to say that we shouldn't expect schools to teach incredibly job-specific skills or knowledge; this is an approach that inevitably ends up teaching things that are largely irrelevant and outdated by the time they come to be used. It would be hard to argue though that a focus on more basic reusable skills would not pay off in the long run. It's all very well to say somebody should have budgeting skills before they leave school but a person with poor numeracy will never be able to budget well whilst an individual with good numeracy will pick it up naturally with ease.

Pretty much all businesses want well-rounded individuals who can communicate effectively, work well in a team or alone, who can organise themselves and can think originally and who are confident in their abilities and open about their weaknesses. It is correct that you can’t purely "teach" these skills and that you can’t simply set them as homework and then grade them against a mark scheme. This is where the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the student comes into play and where small class sizes show their real benefit.

We all seem to want teachers to have a parent-like relationship with our children and yet how good would we be as parents to thirty-two children of our own? It is a testament to the profession that they can even remember the names of the 300+ children that they teach let alone develop personal bonds with each and every one of them and understand their individual needs. As for extra-curricular activities, whilst it may not seem obvious how they contribute to the economy, go back and look at the list of skills that employers want and then think of a list of activities provided by schools. I'm sure you'll find that the bulk assist development of many of the most critical skills.


Surely then it makes sense to simply decrease the statutory maximum class size? I don't think so; I simply don't think it's necessary. Small class sizes aren't mandated for the independent sector, there's no need; the market dictates. The existing maximum class size of thirty-two is often disregarded by academies, they simply rename classes to something different to get round it.

Perhaps small class sizes aren't actually the answer, maybe the private sector is wrong, who am I to say? I can be sure though that if we liberalise the education sector and give teachers the freedom to offer their talents whilst providing parents with a diverse market of schools then we will begin to replicate the excellence found in the private sector.

So, do we actually need to invest more in education? The short answer is no, we don't need to but you will not mirror private provision simply by copying their techniques without their funding. If it was only regulation holding back the state sector then you would already see private schools charging similar amounts to the £6000 that the state invests per child (or even less) but this simply does not happen. It's not possible to offer class sizes of less than twenty without funding closer to £8000 per year.


Can we actually afford it though? Well, we'd need another £20bn per year or so to fund this change. We currently spend roughly £80bn per year on benefits primarily targeted at the ill-educated. Of course this is a long term investment, it wouldn't pay for itself over-night but there's little doubt it'd be profitable eventually through less benefits and increased tax revenues.

It doesn't even have to be tax-payer funded, although I personally favour increased educational funding for all. If we introduced a system of school vouchers, allowing schools to charge what they liked and parents to freely top-up then large parts of the British population would be able to provide their children with a private-level education, primarily at the taxpayer's expense.