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.