Dawn of a new education age

Government schooling has turned into a nightmare for students, parents, teachers, administrators and politicians. Current events in South African schools are a disturbing example but other countries are experiencing similar problems.

Schooling features high on the lists of political party election promises but nothing that is done removes the underlying malaise. Examination results get steadily worse; there is a lack of interest in mathematics and science; literacy rates are declining; higher education budgets don’t improve matters, and students are staying away from school in increasing numbers.

Truancy is such a problem in the UK that since 1997 the government has spent an estimated £1.5bn (R21.4bn) on electronic surveillance and other control systems to try and force students to attend classes. Unfortunate teachers are then compelled to deal with aggressive and unhappy students who spend their time disrupting classes and preventing other students from learning.

The solution to all the schooling problems is sublimely simple: all governments have to do is to let go so that private providers can take over the provision of education and skills training. Problems will melt away as competing entrepreneurs offer a wide range of learning options from which students and their parents can choose. One of the most important characteristics of such a new education market for young people will be that its consumers will determine the nature of the product. Families will not only determine which institutions will teach their children but also what they teach and how they teach.

Families will naturally not be in direct control of the learning institutions. They will influence the activities of the institutions by purchasing their services or refraining from purchasing their services, in the same way that their purchasing decisions influence the activities of the shops from which they buy food and clothing. The learning institutions will set the terms and conditions under which tuition will take place and student disruptive behaviour is unlikely to be tolerated, except in learning institutions that specialise in teaching difficult students.

Private providers, because there is no limit to their numbers or the variety of their skills, knowledge, and capabilities, have a flexibility that governments can never have. They can specialise and cater for large or small niche markets while governments are compelled to standardise. Consider what supermarkets would be like if they were run by government officials with the power to instruct their private competitors how to run their operations. The officials would decide what kind of food is good for you and whether government or private supermarkets will and may provide it, just as they now decide what and how your children must be taught at schools.

Young people all have special educational and learning needs because they are all different. Their capabilities, characteristics, ambitions and interests differ markedly. Standardised schooling, curricula, teaching methods and learning environments cannot provide the variety that is essential to cater for real student needs. The result is that students are squashed into a standardised schooling box that is fit for the mythical ‘standardised student’ and the ‘non-standard students’ are compelled to suffer the consequences.

Government-dominated and prescribed schooling is failing so abysmally that it is becoming obvious to everyone that education policy has to be changed fundamentally. Tinkering with it will not suffice. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of so-called ‘free’ government monopoly services that conditions have to become extremely bad before voters will demand a change.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is poor parents in difficult circumstances that are utilising their meagre resources to provide better alternatives for their children. James Tooley, Professor of Educational Policy at the University of Newcastle, England, has studied this phenomenon and found that, ‘Private schools for the poor have emerged in huge numbers in some of the most impoverished slums and villages in Africa. They cater for a majority of poor children and outperform government schools, for a fraction of the cost.’ In Lagos State, Nigeria, his team found ‘70% or more of schoolchildren in private schools’ and similar large numbers in Ghana and Kenya. Tooley found private schools on almost every street corner in poor areas of India despite the fact that they charge fees that are not insignificant amounts for poor parents to pay, and are competing with government schools that charge no fees and even provide bowls of rice at lunchtime.

In the absence of current constraints, a private market in education and skills transfers has the potential to develop the individual talents of every child under conditions of freedom and choice, the kind that existed in the US and UK in the 19th century, before compulsory schooling laws destroyed them. The education and skills development of young people will become a worldwide competitive entrepreneurial industry, vying for the business of young customers and their parents and utilising the remarkable technical aids and materials that are already available, and the even better aids and materials that will become available in a liberated education market.

More and more parents will appreciate the merits of spending their own money on purchasing quality learning experiences for their children in a competitive and unhampered market for skills transfers and youth development; that such an investment in their children’s futures will provide them with rich personal rewards.

What is needed is for one country, or one relatively autonomous jurisdiction, to repeal its compulsory schooling laws and release the innovative and creative energies of education and training entrepreneurs to teach its young citizens, and the restrictive laws everywhere will topple like dominoes. The demonstration effect will be persuasive.

Black South Africans have convincingly demonstrated that it is not compulsion that impels people to study. They were not subjected to compulsory schooling laws until relatively recently, yet voluntarily educated and capable black people, many of whom attended private missionary schools, hold down jobs in every sphere of the economy and society, including the top positions in government.

It is personal aspiration, a thirst for knowledge, and parental encouragement and guidance that generally leads to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, not compulsion. The education roadblock will be removed worldwide, it is merely the timing that is uncertain. Could SA be the first to remove the shackles and allow its young people to excel?

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of Unchain the Child: Abolish Compulsory Schooling Laws. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 17 October 2006

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