Thursday, October 14, 2010

Education for the individual

Previously, in “Education and the Individual,” I discussed how the two competing educational methods in the public education system in the United States both presuppose a State monopoly on education, and how both seek to impose a uniform purpose and set of standards for all children. In this article, I will lay out the fundamental premises of individualist-oriented, free market education and will propose a few examples that illustrate what education freed from the State might look like.

There are three basic premises at the foundation of individualist education: 1) All children are not born with the same innate abilities. 2) A child who is allowed to develop his or her own unique abilities has more to offer him- or herself and others than one who is not. 3) Each individual has a right to make fully informed decisions about his or her own destiny.

The third premise is contingent on a) an individual’s ability to pursue his or her own destiny, and b) social need. Social need can limit this ability in many ways. A person may want to make a living selling paintings, for instance, but if the market is saturated by painters, he or she may have to settle for something else for the time being. Premise 3 is sometimes described as the fundamental right of “the pursuit of happiness.” In relationship to education, I argue simply that a person has a basic right to pursue his or her own destiny with the aid of unrestricted access to information on which to base those decisions. There is no guarantee of being successful in that pursuit.

Premise Three is especially important because it holds within itself a counter-argument to one of the most frequently asserted objections to a non-Statist approach to education. The argument is as follows: If there were no national education standards, and each school (or family) was free to pursue education in their own manner, then there would be an alarming increase in the number of people who held nonsensical beliefs. For example, fundamentalists would be free to teach Young Earth creationism in their science classrooms, or an agriculture school would be free to teach that “Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”

The idea that the universe was created in seven days and that all life on the planet was created at the same time, however, can be easily disproven by counter-evidence. It would be difficult to reinforce that belief in a free society with unrestricted access to information (that is why Tennessee banned teaching evolution in public schools between 1925 and 1967). The proliferation of incorrect or nonsensical beliefs is only possible when access to information is restricted. Therefore, it is much easier for the Statist, with control over the public education system, to enforce a regime of disinformation and deliberate ignorance. The chance that children will have access to all available information is much greater when their options for schooling are more diverse.

Premises One and Two are the foundation of individualism. If both are false, then there can be no argument against Statist attempts to mold and shape the public in any manner they choose. To deny Premise Two is to say that each individual is like a stem cell that—through intervention by the State—can be specialized to meet the needs of society based on a centrally-directed plan. The role of education would be to simply “stamp” whatever skill set is desired on any given schoolchild, regardless of his or her personal inclinations.

As an individualist, however, I believe that each individual has certain abilities, needs, and desires that cause him or her to pursue certain ends, and that he or she should be free to pursue those ends (insofar as they do not directly harm anyone else). Individualist-oriented, free market education is directed toward preparing the individual to pursue those ends with as little restriction as possible. By “restriction,” I am not referring to rules of behavior or dress codes or any other cosmetic issue discussed in schools today. What I am referring to is the freedom to choose what education one is to pursue, even if that education is different from what we are accustomed to.

What will occur as a consequence of this freedom is nothing less than a radical transformation of the American school system, and we would immediately encounter a wide variety of schools from which to choose. Imagine for a moment a community in which children were not forced to choose between one or two public and private schools with roughly the same curriculum. In our imaginary community, children would have any number of options, including traditional liberal arts schools, vocational schools, and/or apprenticeships; schools with high standards and schools with low standards; expensive schools and inexpensive schools. There would also be a plethora of supplemental education programs all based upon the needs of the individuals in that particular community.

Schools would more than likely be run by professionals in those various fields—people who have an interest in producing the best possible future colleagues. In contrast, public schools today are staffed by educational professionals; teachers who have been trained to feed a watered down version of their subject area to every child, regardless of the individual interests of the child. A plumber does not need to understand Shakespeare to be a successful plumber, for example, but he or she does need to understand plumbing. Needless to say, there are a certain set of skills that are necessary for success in any modern profession (including reading, writing, etc.) and a school in a free market would not last very long if it failed to impart that knowledge.

In a world without public or State-run education, we could cease speaking of an “educational system.” Schools would survive or fail based on the needs of individuals in particular communities, and each individual would be free to pursue his or her own natural calling or vocation. As a result of an absence of one set of educational standards, schools would embrace approaches to education that were the most successful, rather than those dictated from afar. This would ultimately lead to a more pragmatic and less political educational environment.


Turning the ivory towers into a skills factory

Britain's debate about how higher education should be funded assumes that its only value is economic. It is poor value for the taxpayers' money if that is so -- JR

How to fund British universities? It is a dismal question for a dismal debate. And it’s a question that has been recurring with depressing regularity ever since the New Labour government introduced the first top-up fees 12 years ago. Nothing seems to break the repetitive cycle of argument and counter-argument. Critics of spending cuts and/or raising tuition fees will declare that universities are vital: vital to the UK economy, vital to overcoming social inequality, vital to our collective future.

Supporters of spending cuts and/or raising tuition fees will argue that universities are not vital enough. The courses take too long; graduates are not sufficiently economically productive; and besides, the government has already spent too much on this collective future.

Unfortunately, the publication of Lord Browne’s university spending review today, commissioned under New Labour’s tenure, will not alter the narrow, almost entirely economic parameters of this debate around higher education. In fact, if the responses so far are any indication, it is more likely to intensify the economic focus of the discussion. Hence the substance of the reaction so far seems to be around whether to remove the upper limit on tuition fees currently set at £3,290 or to come up with some sort of interest rate on student loans tiered according to whatever a particular graduate subsequently earns. Edifying it is not.

The problem is that the value of higher education is conceived almost entirely from the perspective of economics. So from a social perspective, its ostensible purpose is to increase GDP; from an individual perspective it’s the guarantee – and justification for – a higher salary. Because of this, the argument for increasing the funding burden on students almost makes itself, as Boris Johnson clearly found on Monday: ‘It is hardly progressive that people on low incomes should pay in their taxes for the university education of students who will go on to earn about 40 per cent more than those with no qualifications’, he wrote in his Telegraph column.

To such an argument, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, had little to offer other than a yelp of baby-doomer self-pity: ‘A generation who will already struggle over housing and pensions, as well as increased bills for health and social care, will be asked to pick up the tab for excesses they did not themselves enjoy and mistakes they did not make, by being forced to pay for spending cuts.’ Luckily, in keeping with the bean-counting tenor of the discussion, Porter did have one killer alternative to higher tuition fees and spending cuts in his armoury: ‘A sophisticated graduate tax system.’ A place at the Treasury beckons him.

But wait. A Guardian columnist dissents: ‘The graduate tax does have serious problems. It would have been in effect a new layer of income tax, in some ways progressive, in other ways not. It would mean different generations being taxed at different rates, and those who had “made it” without going to college being taxed at a lower rate. What message would that have sent? It would put quite a lot of ambitious people off going to university, or at least ensure they didn’t go to a British one.’

Underwriting this disagreement, however, is the same monetising view of education shared by parties as ostensibly in conflict as Boris Johnson and the quasi-radical NUS. They all assume that the point of higher education, the reason for studying, is better earnings, just as New Labour always assumed that the societal point of higher education was national wealth. Hence, in the proud words of the 2003 New Labour white paper, The Future of Higher Education, students are at university for the ‘acquisition of skills’. The point being that skills sell. In his first speech as secretary of state for education in 2007, Labour’s John Denham continued in this vein of justification: ‘To compete and prosper in this world, to respond to the needs of leading global and national businesses, we must enable many thousands more people to study and graduate each year. To become a world leader in skills, as Lord Leitch recommended, we must aim for at least 40 per cent of adults to have higher level qualifications by 2020.’

Little wonder that as the cuts bite, the solely economic justification for higher education has taken on a meaner hue. Hence, at the end of last year, we had then business secretary Lord Mandelson calling for cheaper, fast-track, two-year degrees instead of the conventional three. And earlier this month, current business secretary Vince Cable gave a speech arguing that only ‘commercially useful’ science degrees should be government-funded.

There is of course a big, gaping education-shaped hole at the heart of this debate, over which critics and supporters alike build ever-more torturous funding structures. That is, what is higher education for? If the only answer to that question is economic, then the current debate takes on a purely technical aspect: where to cut and upon whom to place the funding burden.

But there is an alternate, humanistic view of higher education that stretches from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, via Matthew Arnold, right up to the 1963 government-backed Robbins Report on giving more social classes the opportunity to study.

And it’s a view that conceives of education, of subject-centred learning and research, as a good in itself. As the Robbins committee wrote: ‘[The] search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education, and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery.’ Such arguments for higher education conceive its value in non-monetary terms. Its ends were not seen as extrinsic to education; they were intrinsic.

Of course one cannot simply resuscitate such ideals. The historical conditions – a sense of Britain as a world power, with a world mission – that enabled Matthew Arnold, for instance, to talk confidently of the universal importance of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ are long gone. But right now, with the supporters of higher education parroting the same vacuous, bean-counting nonsense as its critics, there needs to at least be an attempt to address the purpose of education in terms other than those of the dismal science.


Scandal of Tony Blair's £31m flagship school: A leaking roof, broken designer toilets and a useless computer system

"Innovative" should always ring alarm bells

Funded by a Labour donor, opened by Tony Blair, built by modernist Norman Foster, ­Bexley Business Academy was one of the most high-profile symbols of New Labour’s education policy. And how they were happy to boast about it.

At the opening ceremony in 2003, Blair spoke of Bexley as ‘the future’ of state ­education, and Norman Foster’s website extolled a ­‘visionary, light-filled school that would be ­democratic and flexible’.

Seven years on, the reality could not be more different. Bexley has been a vastly expensive nightmare as a building project, and as a school with a sprawling roster of 1,500 pupils has spent most of its short life in the academic ­emergency ward.

The litany of vastly costly problems is extensive: the roof leaks, the wireless IT systems didn’t work, the electric gates got stuck, the changing rooms were far too small, the designer toilets broke time and again, as did the heating system.

To cap it all, there is a nagging smell of sewage pervading the school, though that might just as easily be the stench of New Labour’s hubris given the way it trumpeted this project.

The school cost an astonishing £31 million to build — far more than any normal school of a similar size — as part of the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme that Michael Gove, the new Tory schools secretary, has closed down.

So money that could have been spent on a decent education for its pupils was wasted on a vanity building project, but even worse, a combination of what appear to be design defects and building failures have created a maintenance disaster zone that continue to drain away the school’s funds.

When it was designed, Foster boasted that the building had been carefully planned to keep heating costs low, and a self-congratulatory ‘assessment’ from the government’s architectural adviser concluded that ‘maintenance of the building’s different materials has been carefully ­considered in the design, and as such is mainly low level’.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. ‘It’s a hugely expensive building and costs us an absolute fortune,’ says Sam Elms, the school’s chief executive. ‘It’s a nightmare to run. If we could move to another building, we would.’

The finance director, meanwhile, has said: ‘We spend 9 per cent of our annual Government grant on premises. Given that our average spend on staff costs is more than 80 per cent, this clearly represents a high proportion of the remaining grant income and leaves little for other equally vital expenditure.’

In fact, as of last year, the academy employs a total of 234 staff, including 105 teachers, 74 classroom assistants and 36 management and administrative staff.

Leaked internal documents predict that the school faces a deficit of £859,000 by next year unless drastic cost-cutting takes place. So far, with seven people on its payroll earning more than £60,000 a year, this doesn’t seem to have taken place.

On the contrary, in addition to ­having a chief executive — paid more than £120,000 a year — it also has a so-called ‘executive principal’, ­Christina Moon. Mrs Moon’s main home is in ­Bristol, so in addition to her £120,000-a-year pay, she has also had a £20,000-a-year flat rented for her in Greenwich by the school. That’s on top of yet more ‘principals’, ‘vice-principals’ and ‘assistant principals’.

No wonder an education consultancy report, seen by the Times Education Supplement, said that the school suffered from ‘a lack of clarity about decision-making’, as well as ‘duplication and inefficiencies’.

So the building was an expensive disaster, and despite the high-profile involvement of Labour donor Sir David Garrard, in the end his charitable trust contributed less than 8 per cent of the cost of the school. The rest was met by the taxpayer.

And Sir David’s name proved to be a mixed blessing when he became involved in the Cash for Honours affair, with his peerage blocked after it emerged that he had lent several million pounds to the Labour Party in a way that allowed his name to be concealed.

Nor has (Lord) Norman Foster’s involvement done Bexley much good either. Despite being ennobled by Labour and appointed to the even more prestigious Order of Merit, Foster has quit his post in the House of Lords to maintain his non-domicile status as a resident of ­Switzerland.

It seems that while he may be prepared to spend other people’s money on so-called democratic schools, but he’d rather not contribute his own money towards funding them.

In Switzerland, Lord Foster lives with his third wife, Elena Ochoa, now Lady Foster of Thames Bank. In her native Spain, Lady Foster was best known as the presenter of Hablemos de Sexo — Let’s Talk About Sex — in which the doctora del sexo enlightened her compatriots on behaviour in the bedroom.

The academic results at Bexley, the school Lord Foster designed, have been mixed. Last year, only 40 per cent of the pupils passed five or more GCSEs of grade C or above (including Maths and English), which was ­better than the dismal 19 per cent two years ago, but still a poor performance for a so-called ­flagship academy.

Norman Foster and Tony Blair appear to have believed that smart school buildings would translate into good exam results. But in fact, as Professor Dylan Wiliam, former deputy director of the Institute of Education, says: ‘I know of no studies that show changing the environment has a direct impact on student achievement.’

In fact, an Ofsted inspection in 2005 found the Academy to be ‘inadequate’, and it was issued with a Notice to Improve, essentially a final demand from the Government that a school must get better quickly, or face being taken over by the Department of Education.

Since then, academic matters have improved, but not by much. The most recent Ofsted report, published this year, found that ‘the Academy is emerging from troubled times. ‘Since the last inspection, two principals have resigned from their post and the academy has had a period where there was no substantive head teacher of the primary phase’.

The current staff are clearly trying hard, but the shortcomings of the building they’ve been left with are obviously making life difficult for them.

Not much of a monument then, to a former prime minister who promised to make Education, Education, Education his top three priorities.

If you want to understand how it was possible for New Labour to double the schools budget in real terms without achieving an improvement in standards, look no further than Bexley.

It’s a monument to vanity policy making, and those councils currently wasting council taxpayers’ money suing Michael Gove for refusing to allow them to build their own educational white elephants should study Bexley — and think again.


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