Sunday, 30 October 2011

Should private schools be abolished?

Believe it or not, this ridiculous notion was recently debated at the illustrious Oxford Union.

Toby Young and Tom Paine have both blogged on the subject.

I don't know whether Toby was just playing to his audience with his opening remarks:
I want to start by agreeing with the honourable members on the other side. The fact that only seven per cent of the British population attended independent schools, yet 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants have been privately educated is iniquitous. Unquestionably, private schools have a good deal to answer for when it comes to the preservation of the English class system.
He went on to say
But what of the moral objection? Here, I think, is the nub of the issue. The issue doesn’t turn on the desirability of reducing the number of children at private schools – most of us agree about that – but on how far the state should be allowed to go in bringing about a socially desirable outcome.
Personally, I think he conceded too much. I commented on his blog as follows:
I find it disturbing that you accept their premise that there should be fewer children in private schools.

The less influence the state has in education, the better.

If we must subsidise education, let's at least allow full and unrestricted competition. Free schools should be truly free: to choose their curriculum, their entrance policies, and their fees. If they want to make a profit, and they can, good for them -- it shows they're meeting market demands efficiently.

Ideally there would be no subsidy at all. The whole system should be voluntary.

As for charities, I suggest we abolish them, along with corporation tax. Too many of them are fake anyway, paid by governments to astroturf.
Too extreme for the students at the Oxford Union, I'm sure. I don't know what Toby really believes, but if he was simply making a rhetorical calculation with a view to winning the debate, it was probably a sensible choice. Such a shame, though, that this is necessary. That state education is accepted as normal and desirable.

I refined my position slightly in a subsequent comment at The Last Ditch:
I actually have mixed feelings about how much say the government should have in taxpayer-funded schools (I don't want my money spent on creationism or madrassas).

Most likely, it [full freedom with the risk of misspent money] would be a price worth paying, but I can think of a couple of alternatives that might mitigate the impact:

1) Push education funding and oversight down to the local level. People in a community are more likely to agree about what should be taught than people across the entire country. Unfortunately, the socialists would kick up a stink about deprived areas, and the policy risks further balkanizing our country into Muslim and non-Muslim areas.

2) Give tax rebates to parents who put their children in private education (equivalent to the cost of state education), so they don't have to pay twice, and leave those private schools completely free to teach as they choose. State schools could remain pretty much as they are today. The policy would still distort the market by introducing a price floor, and non-parents would still be effectively subsidising parents, but it seems like an improvement on the status quo -- only those reliant on the state should have to accept education on the state's terms.

Of course, what the world really needs is a newly-discovered, mostly-unpopulated continent, where we can set up a libertarian society on an opt-in basis ...
You'll sense the despair in that last sentence. I firmly believe that a libertarian society would be both morally and materially superior to our current statist mess, but it's very difficult to see a path from where we are to where I'd like us to be. Too many people have bought into the current order. Too many have given up thinking for themselves.

But the fight goes on.

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