Monday, March 5, 2012

On the Purpose of Schools

I observed yesterday, in passing, that teachers, and the teaching unions, seem to believe that the purpose of education is to provide jobs for teachers. This appears to be a fairly common belief among public employees and bureaucracies in general, and helps to explain why it is so hard to get the public sector to do things efficiently and economically. They treat waste and redundancy as good things, proving more positions for civil servants.

In Spain it has been enshrined in law for 150 years that public employees have the job for life, including a guaranteed pension. They cannot be sacked for laziness or incompetence without a very long and tedious administrative process which is only very rarely initiated, let alone completed. And they cannot be sacked at all simply because they are unnecessary. We, the public, are undoubtedly paying hundreds of thousands of civil servants who were originally employed to do something which is no longer required, or which, in the current economic climate, is a luxury we would choose to do without, if we had the option. Hundreds of thousands of people are effectively paid by the taxpayer to do nothing.

This system of awarding government jobs for life by means of independent tribunals was created with the excellent intention of stopping the corrupt practices of the 19th century whereby an incoming government would sack the civil servants of the previous regime and replace them with people loyal to themselves. Since then there have been two republics, two dictatorships, two changes of Royal house, various attempts at different forms of democracy, some 15 heads of state of all types and all political persuasions, and some 5o heads of government, almost equally varied (they include nobility, but not royalty). Now, with a stable democracy and a constitution accepted by all sides, it may be the moment to review a practice that is 150 years old and is the direct cause of enormous economic and human waste.

Politically it can’t be done. Neither of the main parties would touch such a reform, but it could happen slowly, over a couple of decades or so, if government at all levels starts to use more contracted staff and allows the system of permanent posts to die off, or at least to become a rare thing, a way of covering core positions from people who have demonstrated competence and diligence over a number of years. Even the private sector needs greater flexibility in employment at difficult times like these (something even Felipe González understood in the crisis of the early 90’s) and the civil service needs to become hugely more flexible.

Nevertheless, in teaching a problem at least as great as the inability to get rid of bad teachers is the way they are selected in the first place. No part of the selection process, I repeat, no part at all, has the aim of determining which of the hundreds of candidates are the best teachers, and best suited to the positions available that year. The whole point of the process is that no one can be blamed later for the decisions taken. It was ‘the tribunal’ that gave that idiot the job.

It’s easy to imagine how a selection process whose only purpose is to exist, so that the right boxes can be ticked, affects the quality of teaching.

So in Spain the purpose of education is to assign salaries to teachers, any teachers, as long as the numbers are high enough to satisfy the unions. Not surprisingly, the education of the majority of children ends in failure to achieve a fraction of what they might have done. And no change is in sight.


Vincent said...

I cannot help but feel you've given a mere fraction of the picture here, so it's difficult to judge.

As a small c conservative I feel it is admirable that practices 150 years old still survive. Surely they have matured by this time, and cannot be all bad.

You sound scarily progressive in this post.

CIngram said...

I have given only a small fraction of the picture, that related to what I know about, which is how the system works in education. I thinks it is particularly bad in my field, but the general idea of jobs for life has many negative consequences.

As you may have gathered, I don't like change for the sake of change, and I value tradition and what we can learn from long-established practices, but I have spent years seeing first-hand the problems caused by the fear of changing it.

"You sound scarily progressive..."

As Jim Hacker replied when Sir Humphrey said that a decision of his was 'brave': Oh my God, do I?