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March 05, 2006

Rod Liddle on Education

Given that my campaign to write for The Spectator is having such stunning success (the emails they don’t send me presumably running along the lines of "We’re not going to respond to your kind offer to write for us because you are a nonce") I might as well completely destroy my chances by pointing out where the editorial gatekeeper, one Rod Liddle, is completely wrong.

The insistence on “choice” has become a mantra for all three of our main political parties: but I’m not sure that parents — especially parents outside London — want choice. Instead, they want their kids to go to the local school and they want that school to be well run.

It may well be that that is all that parents want. I wouldn’t bet on it, but let the point stand. OK, how are we going to achieve it? A pure local monopoly? Kiddies have to attend one specific school? In order for there to be any change there has to be a fight through the bureaucracy of the LEA? Which you cannot escape so there is no motiviation for them to do anything at all?


This is proof that Liddle simply doesn’t understand the most basic points about economics. Monopolies bad m’kay?. Most especially imposed ones. Leave aside all the stuff about capitalists, profits, whether something is run charitably or whatever. What we want and need, always, is markets. Alternatives. This is what drives up standards, the level of provision of whatever it is.

We see it in such things as web browsers: IE went to sleep after Microsoft crushed Netscape, only waking up again (half-heartedly) when Firefox revitalised Mozilla. We see it in such things as the NHS (The Wonder of the World!)  which is markedly slower at adopting new treatments than the US.
We also see it in the education system (plus all those lovely things like producer capture etc etc).

The choice bit is a red herring. I don’t, as a matter of not much interest to anyone, care very much about whether parents have a choice about how their child is educated, nor whether they have a choice of schools to send them to.

I do care about the inevitable rise in standards that would come from the breaking of the monopoly and parental choice is simply a side effect of that. Much of what is bad about the education system in the UK is the result of too few markets, too little pressure on the incumbent supppliers to raise their game. Liddle would solve this by removing all such pressure.


So, that’s my campaign to get 465 pounds a thousand words blown then.

March 5, 2006 in Media | Permalink


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There are, I think, two fundamental problems inhibiting the reform of secondary schooling in England.

For once, Prescott was absolutely right when he suggested that the problem with good schools was that “everyone wants to go there”.

The second problem is that some local education authorities recognised several decades ago the appealing validity of this formula:

poor secondary education standards => uncertain job prospects for young people => vote Labour

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 5, 2006 12:50:55 PM

Parents, even 'socialist' parents, viciously compete for the best schooling for their children. Socialism is something to be done to other people, not something to be done to oneself or one's own family.

Why do we use the phrase 'local education authority'? The one word 'council' suffices, and is more accurate. LEA schools are council schools.

Posted by: simon | Mar 5, 2006 11:50:17 PM

"Why do we use the phrase 'local education authority'? The one word 'council' suffices, and is more accurate. LEA schools are council schools."

I agree the other sentiments but not all councils are 'local education authorities' and the acronym LEAs is standard. The official education league tables relate to LEAs.

However, besides all that, the over- and under-tones of "council schools" are misleading. There are some outstandingly good LEAs and many outstandingly good grant-aided foundation schools. It amounts to grotesque disinformation to lump all public sector schools together and decry the lot.

"This page shows the top 200 institutions ranked on the basis of their pupils' performance in A/AS-level exams. The results are the average points per student. Smaller schools, with fewer than 30 pupils eligible to take the exams, are not ranked."

"The UK's most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates' results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree."

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 6, 2006 9:23:23 AM

Rod wants the kids to attend the local school 'cos he moved to rural Wiltshire to raise them. If he lived in the smoke he'd be like Mrs Will Self, who was moaning about the dreadful local schools in the Indie last week. And like Ms Orr, he'd go private.

Tim adds: Rural Wiltshire? Bit agricultural don’t you think. I speak as one from Somerset so I know whereof I speak.

Posted by: a | Mar 6, 2006 12:16:46 PM

And like David Aaronovitch too. And Polly Toynbee.

Posted by: a | Mar 6, 2006 12:17:59 PM

There are local schools and local schools. It happens that four on the list posted above of "the top 200 institutions ranked on the basis of their pupils' performance in A/AS-level exams" are in the London borough where I happen to live, with several of the four attaining better results than Eton.

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 6, 2006 12:35:55 PM

I don't know where in London Bob B lives but from a very brief visit to the BBC report site he lists, it appears all of the schools in the top 200 were, independent or selective (or both). Also, the report on the U of Warwick survey does not tell us where these "good" degrees were awarded. I suspect that the fee-paying schools sent their pupils mainly to Oxbridge and the old redbrick universities where - thank God - it is still relatively difficult to get a good degree without some effort. You can always get a good degree at the University of East Brent or similar if you can write your name (oh alright - if you can read and write but not necessarily very well). And, anyway, since when did grades at A/A-S level have any use beyond constituting "evidence" for the government to claim that our schools are getting better and better and our children more intelligent, better educated and even more . . . . err wonderful.

Posted by: Umbongo | Mar 6, 2006 3:07:48 PM

Careful scrutiny of the list of 200 top schools by A-level results shows that five comprehensives are up there with the best. Selective and non-maintained (that's independent, fee-paying schools) predominate but all four of the schools in the London borough where I live are in the maintained sector - and there are several more local, maintained schools with outstanding standards but which missed being included in the top 200 list. By many accounts and all appearances, those four schools draw their pupils from wide catchment areas and are anything but ethnically Waspish. In fact, the school down the road, which my son attended, reports that 55% of its present pupils are white - for comparison: "Nearly half (45 per cent) of the total minority ethnic population lived in the London region, where they comprised 29 per cent of all residents."

I don't share the reported objections to academically inclined schools selecting their pupils on the basis of academic aptitudes anymore than I would object to schools specialising in sports or music or foreign languages from selecting their intakes on the basis of aptitudes for their respective specialities - it seems daft not to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the borough where I live is regularly rated at or near the top of the LEA rankings for England on the basis of GCSE results and has been so ranked for the last ten years and more because of its cluster of outstanding (selective) schools. The curious thing is that the borough is not especially affluent. In an exercise by Barclays Capital a few years back, the borough turned to have about the same per capita income as Milton Keynes once adjustment was made for the differences in housing costs.

On the Warwick university study: "Dr Robin Naylor and Dr Jeremy Smith of Warwick University's Department of Economics analysed data from the Universities Statistical Records, covering every student at a UK university from 1985 until 1993.

"They found that a student from an independent school has an 8% lower chance of getting a first or an upper second degree than a state school pupil who enters university with the same A-level grades."

Posted by: Bob B | Mar 6, 2006 9:47:12 PM