Sunday, May 12, 2013

On the Need, or not, for Public Education, and Other Related Matters (Because I Can't Stick to the Point)

When people say they want public education, what do they mean?

I want good education, as cheaply as possible. I don’t care how it is done. Why would you?

When you talk to people about this, you often find that it is public education, more than good and available education, which is taken as the final end.

(This is not only true of education. The local governments of Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha have recently been trying to privatize the management of some hospitals. This is not, on the face of it, an ideological plan, but one that stems from the desperate need to make the available money go further. Administration costs are recognised as being far too high. Why not attempt something that might allow more money to be spent on looking after sick people? If it doesn’t work, we can go back to the old ways, but surely it is worth trying. Nevertheless there have, predictably, been massive protests, even before anything has been done.

Similarly, Brett Hetherington wrote a while back about a plan to privatise the water supply of a town in Catalonia, which has been rejected by the people of the town. Ok, fair enough, local democracy at work. But it isn’t necessarily the right decision. What is wanted, surely, is a cheap and reliable supply of water. It doesn’t have to be done by politicians.)

It is broadly accepted that everyone should contribute a smaller or greater amount so that all children can have access to education. There are few wealthy people or higher earners who would argue that poor children should be left illiterate and unable to offer anything useful in exchange for a living. They didn’t when education was not fully socialized and I don’t believe this has changed. By ensuring that all children have the opportunity to get education governments are genuinely acting as the agents of the public will.

However, there is no particular reason, as I have said, why they should have exclusive control over every aspect of education, including the education of those who do not need to depend on the government, or who do not want the education it provides?

The schools I worked at in my previous existence as a high school teacher were private. My current teaching avatar receives homage at a ‘concertado’ school, that is, one that was independently created, was strictly private for many years, and is now privately managed but to a certain extent publicly funded, and open to all those who want to go there via a selection process not controlled by the school. It is economically efficient (so I understand, relative to state schools) and academically and humanly successful. It does what it is supposed to do, what people want it to do. Why does it matter that it does some things its own way?

Surely it doesn’t.

Much of what happens at school has the purpose of creating a disciplined, respectful atmosphere. If the place were not full of people who don't want to be there this would not be necessary and time and energy could be properly devoted to helping the people who want to learn, to learn.
Even in this school there is much that must be done according to the government’s rules, and much that is done as it is because, that’s the way you do things, isn’t it? The classes are long and dull, full of quite unnecessary information and skills, a huge amount of the children’s time is wasted, enormous effort is put into creating systems for instilling and enforcing order, discipline and mutual respect. It is a fine system, well conceived and well run, functioning smoothly and without fuss, reacting calmly to push down every nail that attempts to stand out. It makes life better for everyone involved that these systems exist and are very well oiled, but they are only necessary because of the essential nature of education is misconceived. They are a very good solution, but to a problem that should not exist.

In almost every class there are children who do not want to be there, or who should not be there. If they were not forced to be there, and we were not forced to waste time pretending that they will ever learn anything useful, life would be much better for the rest, and their education much more productive.

In any case, if exams are the focus of everything there is no need to bring children together forcibly. There is little point even having classes. Tell them what to study and where to find it and then make yourself available to those who have questions. Surely it really is that simple.

In systems where exams are not the only thing that matters there is still little reason to force children to be in classrooms where they don’t want to be. The idea of education as an advantage and a privilege has been so completely lost that we think it perfectly reasonable to force children to accept that privilege against their will, and the idea that parents might not be able to have their children locked up and guarded 7 hours a day by other people is utterly mystifying to many.


Brett Hetherington said...

Much of what you say makes perfectly good sense (as it invariably does.) But when a country allows too much of it's education to be private, at the expense of a good state-run system then the results are clear: England and the USA.

In these two places the poor simply do not have the same opportunity as the rich to get into the "privileged" universities. They have almost no chance, despite how bright they might be. Therefore, your life prospects are largely determined by an accident of birth - where you live and are raised is the single biggest factor in how your life will turn out.

Public education is an idea to combat this situation, even though it is often just as appaling in it's own ways.

CIngram said...

But education is in the unusual position that the publically provided service could be as good as what you can buy privately. The fact that it is isn't is probably due to a combination of government inefficiency, political meddling obscuring the real aims, and lower aspirations on the part of families.

It isn't the existence of good private schools that makes state schools bad, or less good. The problem lies in themselves, and the solution is not to force private schools to be worse. Private schools save the government money, which should make the state schools better. In practice they mainkly serve to show up its failings.

But I'm not suggesting, as I made clear, that we stop offering education to those who can't but their own. Quite the opposite. I want to identify the areas where the state system fails and the reasons why it does. I don't think the existence of priavte education is one of them.

Brett Hetherington said...

You say that "Private schools save the government money, which should make the state schools better." If that was once true, it certainly is not any longer, as the USA and UK show. "Lower aspirations" is certainly a factor in public schools but in Spain I have noticed it here in private schools quite a bit too. The truth is that some public schools are the equal of supposedly better private ones but the quality of provision is so uneven that you get the middle-class fighting and scrapping to get their kids away from a lot of crappy public schools which are crappy mainly because the government is neglecting to fund them properly.

Sackerson said...

When people say they want a good education (for their children), aren't they really thinking about careers and employment opportunities?

Those who simply want to learn now have vast and increasing resources avilable via the Internet - though nothing replaces interpersonal tuition and discussion.

Brett Hetherington said...

Plenty of people do equate a good education with careers and future employment opportunities for their kids, yes of course. For myself, this is only one factor in the general, broader education of our son.

We try to balance the vocational side of things with making sure he is in the best possible place for others aspects of his personal development. Sometimes, in the past, this has meant a private/semi-private school.

CIngram said...


In Spain there are good private schools, and there are average ones. I know of none that are like the bad state achools, because they simply don't survive. On the other hand there I know state schools that do work well, as well as many private schools.

Parents who understand the value of education, that is, who have higher aspirations, will certainly try to run from the crappy schools. The people who stay either can't get out or don't care. In the state sector those bad schools must continue to exist, with the same intake and the same staff (under the Spanish system of jobs for life) for many years, before someone in government decides to do something about it.
The US and Britain are very different in that most of the good universities in the US are strictly private and very expensive. The state has not been able to compete in quality. In Britain they are effectively state-funded (most of them) and state-controlled to a certain extent, and it's much easier for a bright pupil to get a place, and there is funding to pay for it to be taken up.
The problem here is how to provide education, make appropriate education available, to everyone, without damaging the quality of the very best. It would be great if all children could be offered an education like that at Eton, and all bright young people could do courses of the quality of those at MIT, but it will never be possible. The solution is not, however, to stop other peopel from having that education.

CIngram said...

That seemed to have gone on long enough and to have drifted from the point. Let's try again:
I really don't think money is the problem. I understand that many education authorities in England spent more money per pupil than a lot of private schools. It's what you do with that money that counts. That is, the way you define your purpose, the things you do to achieve it, and the people you pay to try to make sure it gets done.. It isn't even clear that more money would solve anything at all.
I don't have the data for Spain (or for England, I was speaking from memory) but I shall try to find out. In any case, in my experience here, the difference between good and nad state schools isn't the money, as they are all funded by the same method, but the people in them.

CIngram said...


Another of the problems is that most people in my experience don't have much of an idea what they want out of their or their children's education. Middle class/professional parents do, on the whole, and some of their drive and ambition, if not their knowledge of how to achieve it day to day, rubs off on their children. But the majority do not know why they send their children to school. Low expectations are passed from parents to children and accepted by teachers, who have enough work getting the more ambitious up to scratch. That, sadly, is the way it is. But yes, it could be changed. It is possible to inspire children and their parents with ambition and motivation they didn't know they could have, but it's bloody hard work, and most of the time it fails.

I assume you mean that it's exams that matter to those people, not knowledge in itself, and I'm sure you're right. In fact it's probable that a good education system (my book on the subject will be published eventually, sometime before the extinction of the polar bear, with a bit of luck) would need to recognise that fact and separate these and other motivations for learning into different strands, or even different institutions, especially at the higher and university levels.

Brett Hetherington said...


You may well be right that "In Spain there are good private schools, and there are average ones. I know of none that are like the bad state achools, because they simply don't survive."

Certainly in Australia though (years ago) I taught full-time in an Islamic private school for a few months and it survived despite not deserving to. It was the end-of-the-line of Mulsim schools in Melbourne. The cheapest, nastiest, violent place that you could imagine, even though some of the kids, especially the girls, were nice. Market forces dictated that this school had a place and I suppose non'academic religous families want somewhere to send their kids.

They were the kind of kids who at 14, 15, 16 years of age should have been learning practical skills, not hours of ancient history or theoretical subjects.

Public education used to cater for those kind of kids but now it barely does, even though employers continue to complain that they don´t get "job-ready" students. More public money would really help this problem, rather than the cheaper one-size-fits-all policy of the last few decades.

CIngram said...

An interesting experience. One thing it highlights is that knowledge and the ability to make a living in the adult world are not the only things parents look for in a school, sometimes they are not even the most important things.

And there is a wide variety of needs that children have, in order to have a chance of making something in life of whatever hand they have been dealt. Schools need to be able to address these varying needs, and the way education law is created, and the way the state system works, do not allow the right experience, flexibility and incentives for it to happen. There is far too much politics, and ideology generally, and too little application of practical knowledge.

Not long ago I tried to start a blog specifically dedicated to education reform. It was supposed to be a repository, a resource in essence, of ideas, thoughts, reasoned arguments and useful links. It didn't get beyond a few rants, partly because I didn't have the time, but also because I couldn't get the proper focus and every attempt to write about the subject descended into references to 'blithering idiocy', 'criminal stupidity' etc within the first three lines.

But I think it's something worth doing. Maybe a collaborative effort, which I'd be glad to see you involved with, if you're interested. With a handful of experienced teachers, genuinely interested in finding ways to improve education, and able to articulate their ideas, with a clearly defined goal and structure, it might be possible to do something worthwhile.

Brett Hetherington said...


Many thanks for the offer to be involved in a collaborative blog on education reform. I'd be happy to do that but I think my input would be quite minimal though as I have too much else going on these days. Maintaining my own blog and website already takes up quite a bit of time, and with (paid) work and home life on top of that I wouldn't be able to contribute very much but consider me in on a limited basis. One chapter of my soon-to-be-published books is about education and some extracts from that would be relevant to reform.