Ban private schools?

Philosopher Stephen Law is generating plenty of discussion with his suggestion that private schools be banned. He says the current system is inherently unfair, and reasons as follows: there is a clear bias towards the privately educated in high-status jobs. This is because the wealthy advantage their children by paying for a ‘better’ education. Whether the education is ‘better’ in terms of educational merit or simply the doors it opens is moot – the end result shows a significant advantage to the privately educated, who aren’t actually any different from the non-privately educated in terms of intelligence or potential1, but who happen to have wealthy parents. This is clearly unfair to those who happen to be born into poorer families, who don’t get the same chances.

Anyway, an obvious solution is to ensure everybody is educated to the same standard. The idea of banning private schools immediately sets right off against left, but needn’t. The same result could be achieved with only private schools, if top-ups weren’t allowed – every child would have exactly the same amount of money spent on them. The usual Libertarian the-state-is-rubbish-at-everything argument doesn’t apply. Here’s Prof. Law’s actual suggestion, posted this morning:

Let’s a have a voucher system with no top ups. A voucher is the only way you can purchase your child an education.

Let both the state and private firms compete for these vouchers by providing schools.

Schools can select by ability if they wish.

Let’s add a further feature to this system – the value of the voucher is not fixed, but is dependent on the socio-economic intake of the school. The more middle class and well-off the parents are, on average, the less the voucher is worth. The more impoverished they are, the more [it’s] worth.

Why the variable-value voucher?

This last feature deals with the effect of people moving to the vicinity of highly middle class schools to get their kids in. That school would now receive less funding than the school with working class kids down the road. Take your voucher to that other school, and it’s worth more. And so are the vouchers of the other kids at that school.

The precise difference in voucher value can be fine-tuned over time, to cancel out the effect of the middle-classes gaining an advantage by moving nearer to middle-class dominated schools. (In fact, by increasing the difference, we could ensure that they actually tend to flee from them.)

Incentive to run a good school? Private companies will extract their profit from the vouchers, competing with each other by two means – providing better schools so as to attract more pupils (so they grow) and by efficiency – the more efficient they are at providing quality education, the more of the voucher they can take in profit. But take too much in profit and standards will drop and parents will chose to send their kids elsewhere.

I’m trying to think this through. You’d obviously need a strong regulatory body to ensure private companies weren’t being too ‘efficient’, and there’d still be the usual problems with how to judge school standards. But these issues are hardly unique.

I’m sure there’ll be some comments about parents’ ‘rights’ to pay for their children’s education. But children aren’t property, and should get an equal opportunity regardless of where and to whom they happen to be born. But then I’m a lefty and would think that.

The only real problem I can think of is that wealthy parents might simply pay for private tutors, which would break the system if it happened in high enough numbers. Not sure what you do about that. Would it be practically possible to regulate private tuition, and bring it into the voucher scheme? Hmmm.

Selecting on ability is gnawing at me a little. Wouldn’t the best teachers still head for the schools with the most intelligent children? But then I suppose that’s the point: it’s far fairer for educational standards to be weighted towards intelligence than wealth. And it’s possible separation by intelligence within an individual school, by sets etc., is the only way to ensure everybody reaches their potential (in theory, anyway), so what’s the difference? I don’t like that less-able kids would probably get a lower standard of teacher, but at least it would be as a result of something inherent to the child, rather than his/her parents.

I don’t know whether it’s practical, but it’s an interesting idea and I’m sure Prof. Law’s comment box will soon be overflowing.

His posts all have the same title and it’ll be confusing once they drop off the front page. The Private Education label is currently showing them all.

  1. he assumes an average distribution of talent and native intelligence across the social classes []