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Brian Micklethwait

I am more than ever convinced that if the entire state education system were to drop dead tomorrow morning, that would be a great improvement for some people immediately, for many people in a few weeks, for most people in a few months, and for almost everyone in a few years.  After a decade, the results would be miraculous.  Some of the money saved should be spent on more policemen and more temporary prisons and juvenile detention centres, and in a perfect world, the rest of the money no longer wasted would be knocked off the income tax.  But even if the money no longer wasted was instead spent on something more frivolous, less well-meaning, and hence merely less harmful than state education, like jobs for the otherwise unfrocked bureaucrats doing absolutely nothing but write bitter reports for each other to read and snarl about, that would still be a great improvement for the rest of us.

18 thoughts on “Well, Quite”

  1. “I am more than ever convinced that if the entire state education system were to drop dead tomorrow morning, that would be a great improvement for some people”

    As well as a great loss to many parents because of this report in today’s press about the treatment of teachers in private-sector schools:

    “Teachers in independent schools are being denied the most basic employment rights, with some not having written contracts and others forced to work more than 100 hours a week.”

    The verifiable fact is that within easy walking distance of where I sit now, two maintained, selective boys schools gained better results in last summer’s A-levels than Eton:

  2. Since Eton’s for not-so-bright poshos, that’s hardly a surprise; if your kid is really bright and you’re going down the feepaying route, you send them to City of London or St Paul’s…

    Vaguely on-topic-ally, I don’t see quite how you or Brian get from “choice-based funding for state education, as used in Sweden, would lead to more efficient teaching” to “abolishing the entire state education system and not replacing it with anything would be better than leaving it intact”.

    At the moment, the UK is 99%+ literate in terms of basic literacy (writing your own name, reading warning signs…) and 80% in terms of “functional literacy” (being able to read and comment on a blog post, for example). What’s your mechanism for maintaining (never mind improving on) these standards in the absence of any state infrastructure or funding? Even the Victorians recognised that funding primary schools for the poor out of tax revenues was essential…

  3. “Even the Victorians recognised that funding primary schools for the poor out of tax revenues was essential…”

    Exactly so:

    “We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the ‘revolution’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nick] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and ‘Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital’.”
    Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61

  4. “Even the Victorians recognised that funding primary schools for the poor out of tax revenues was essential”

    Someone should read up on Charles Gordon and the Ragged Schools Union (now the Shaftsbury Society).

  5. “Since Eton’s for not-so-bright poshos, that’s hardly a surprise; if your kid is really bright and you’re going down the feepaying route, you send them to City of London or St Paul’s…”

    Strange how those of a liberal bent are so wedded to the concept of genetic inheritance influencing intelligence despite the whole rationale of the liberal state being in the other direction. Presumably the poshos send the family retard away to boarding school whilst doing the school run in the 4×4 with the one they don’t mind the neighbours seeing.

    Presumably Micklethwait’s of the opinion that the thing’s so irretrievably broken that it’d be better to let it collapse & start again. Having listened to a dinner party guest holding forth on her expertise as a secondary school teacher recently, I’m minded to agree.

  6. “Teachers in independent schools are being denied the most basic employment rights”

    Well that’s not true is it? I am sure there are plenty of jobs available to them that do offer such rights, the subtext here is “Working in state sector is so shit that half-way decent teachers are happy to waive their ‘rights’ and move to the private sector where they work for 100 hours a week for about five months a year”

  7. Now, 100 hours a week for 48 weeks a year – they would have something to complain about.

    As is, no they don’t – which other careers gives so many days off? None.

  8. As for those wonderful private-sector schools:

    “The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates’ results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree.”

    For my preferences, give us back more of the ol’ state grammar schools. My son went to one of the schools just down the road and got excellent schooling with a good degree at the end without my having to fork out £20k a year in fees which I couldn’t have afforded.

  9. “The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research.”

    The difference was 8% fewer Firsts and 2:1’s awarded. Given that the products of independent schools comprise a proportion of university students vastly higher than their presence in the primary and secondary education system would suggest, it still remains the fact that a very large fraction of students with good degrees were educated in the independent sector. The state education system in the UK is so utterly appalling that for one of its victims to even get into a decent university is a signal achievement. That talent will out, and that the two cohorts diverge is, as we used to call it, a GOTBO: a glimpse of the bleedin’ obvious. If the state system didn’t shatter the life chances of so many, this effect would vanish. There are good state schools, but their numbers are so nugatory as to have practically no impact. Bob B, you and your son were bloody lucky. My parents had no option but to have me educated privately, since the state schools in my LEA were among the more useless institutions in the whole of Christendom. Thankfully, I was awarded scholarships otherwise the fees would have been intolerable.

    As for the ridiculous notion that Eton is for thick-but-monied children: its entrance exam is one of the most rigorous in the public school system. It can afford to be; places are over-subscribed 8 to 1. It’s a bit moot, anyway. GCSE and A-levels have been so devalued through dumbing down that at the top end of the schools league table, pass rates are so high as to render any sort of ranking pretty well meaningless from a statistical standpoint. No wonder the best schools are abandoning them in droves.

  10. “The state education system in the UK is so utterly appalling that for one of its victims to even get into a decent university is a signal achievement.”

    I’m sure my son will be reassured to learn that although it has to be admitted that 8 or so in his year, from his maintained school down the road, got into Oxbridge, as I recall, never mind the many others in his year who went to all the other universities.

    It could be more fruitful, I think, to focus not so much on the maintained schools as a class but to inquire about particular regions with disproportionate numbers of failing schools:

    “ONE in five of the country’s worst 50 schools based on 14-year-olds’ test results can be found in Yorkshire, according to shocking figures published today. . . Dozens of secondary schools from across the region are languishing at the bottom of the league tables for key stage three tests in English, maths and science.”

    Why is it that in Yorkshire so little has evidently changed in attitudes to schools and education since George Orwell researched The Road to Wigan Pier there in 1936?

    Come to think on it, it seems that not much may have changed since Charles Dickens wrote about schools in Yorkshire in Nicholas Nickleby (1839).

  11. Bob B: am I somehow meant to be impressed that you lucked out and your kid didn’t attend a completely useless comp? All but two of my (122 strong) year entered university. Of the two that didn’t, one jumped straight into the burgeoning mid-80’s estate agency market and the other went into BA’s trainee pilot programme. A third of my fellow pupils attended Oxbridge; that I did not was solely due to my acceptance of an offer from Imperial College, which at that point (and is still) was rated more highly than Cambridge for F300 BSc Physics. I was offered a place from Corpus Christi, but chose London instead. To maintain that I would have had a similar outcome had I been forced to attend the local High School flies in the face of reason. My parents had to do a Sophie’s Choice decision: which of their children would benefit most from private education? I was the cleverer, ergo I got the resources pumped into my career. Had I not obtained scholarships to both prep and public school, I would not have attended either. That I did enabled me to participate in the finest educational system in the entire world. Grammar schools are all very well, but even at their peak they were a poor imitation of the jaw-droppingly outstanding level of education that one can secure for ones children in the British public school system. My alma mater just spent ten million pounds on a new educational complex. What penny-ante erstwhile grammar school can claim that as less than a five year operational budget? Sorry pal, but there’s a reason the independent sector is growing.

  12. David, The research at Warwick University – link posted above – reports an inverse association between fees paid in non-maintained schools and the degree classes of those pupils who go on to university. Non-maintained schools – which only cater for c. 7 per cent of pupils at school altogether – are a mixed bag: some are very good academically but a lot are not.

    You were fortunate in getting a scholarship to go a public school but most of your contemporaries were and are there because their parents could afford school fees that are well beyond the reach of most parents. The grammar schools enable academically able children to get a schooling without fees better suited to their aptitudes than they could get at most comprehensives. There are now only 164 grammar schools and many of those – on the evidence – are achieving better exam results than many schools in the non-maintained sector.

    Btw I only learnt after my son was at university that the infamous chief inspector of schools at that time – Chris Woodhead – had attended the same school.

  13. Bob B (as usual) misses the point completely.

    As independent schools send a disproportionate number of students to university (esp. good ones) it is entirely to be expected that they might get lower grades when there – these schools are succeeding in getting good grades with less academic pupils. This is evidence of their success, not the contrary. Overall the evidence is clear – you stand a better chance of going to university and doing well when there if you go to an independent school.

    The small number of grammar schools remaining have become extraordinarily selective due to the large numbers applying – so you’d expect good results. My daughter attends an independent school almost next to one of the highest performing state grammar schools in the country. Both are selective, but the grammar school typically selects the top 5% and the independent one the top 25%. GCSE and A level results are almost identical.

    Incidentally, although Eton is pretty selective these days (I know, I’ve coached there) the point is that along with many other independent schools, they now restrict the number of subjects pupils can study for GCSE and A level. This is because they don’t want an exam ‘points race’ to crowd out extra-curricular activities. This is one reason why top state schools now often get more ‘points’. Also, the adoption of the iGCSE by many independent schools means that they appear lower down the tables than they should as the government doesn’t include iGCSEs in its figures.

  14. “Bob B (as usual) misses the point completely”

    LOL! The original focus of this thread – please, check – was that it would be better if state schools were abolished.

    What the evidence from independent sources shows is that, in fact, there are many exemplary maintained schools (the official jargon for non-feepaying schools), that non-maintained schools only cater for a small percentage of school pupils (less than 7% of the total) and that there is evidently much dross among feepaying schools to judge from the degree classes achieved by the disproportionately large numbers of their alumni who get (pushed) into universities.

    However, I completely understand why those whose parents paid the extortionate, cartelised fees of non-maintained schools [1] feel impelled to decry the accomplishments of the alumni of outstanding maintained schools. The blunt fact is that it’s all about protecting personal monopoly rents achieved through costly private investments. No wonder they resent the attainments of the alumni of maintained schools who got good degrees at good universities.

    In these times when selection for academic aptitudes and grammar schools are under attack – though evidently not selection for sports academies or for criminal characters – the instructive incidental of the two outstanding boys schools in my locality is that these schools are located in a London borough which consistently features at or near the top of the League Table of Local Education Authorities in England:

    The borough is fortunate to have a cluster of outstanding selective sechools but the evidence shows that their presence raises average attainment in the GCSE exams across the borough.


  15. The above post is probably the most ridiculous thing Bob B has ever written – and that’s saying something. How dare he accuse me of some sort of snobbishness when he knows absolutely nothing of the reason I favour independent schools.

    Fact: You are, overall, more likely to get a good degree if you go to an independent school for the very simple reason that you are far more likely to get to university in the first place. If Bob B can’t understand this I’d suggest that he didn’t get a very good education.

    Contrary to his ridiculous assertion that support for independent schools is based on protecting privilege, I abhor the division between state and independent sectors – but it is the state that has caused it. Do you get your taxes back if you prefer not to use the state run system because it doesn’t meet your needs?

    That there are some good state schools does not prove or even suggest that overall schooling wouldn’t be better if state schooling were abolished. My view is that all schools should be independent and then the only question is how they would then be funded. There should be both price and quality competition.

    Bob B seems to think that the state should devise and enforce a selective system to entrench privilege for a few. He wants the taxpayer to fund his preferred system. Well, what if other taxpayers don’t agree? My view is that the state should enforce no system – let schools best cater for their market. Independent schools already do this as some are selective, some less academic and some cater for the whole range – albeit at inflated cost due to lack of competition (because 93% of pupils get no choice).

    Incidentally (and this is beside my point), there is very little evidence, and some to the contrary, that areas with grammar schools overall get better results.

    I speak as someone who was state educated and whose parents sent me out of their LEA area to avoid the awful local grammar school (I passed 11+) to go to a comprehensive simply because it was a better school. My daughter goes to an independent school because it offered the things I wanted – separate sciences at GCSE, modest size (700 pupils vs 1500 for my local state school), and less government meddling (I can think of little worse than having Ed Balls make decisions about my child’s education) – none of which was offered by the state sector.

    Incidentally, Bob B, your posting of all sorts of links and quotes demonstrates only that you are incapable of constructing a coherent argument on your own. Nobody ever follows your links.

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