Education entrepreneurs could upgrade South Africa’s schooling

Economist Thomas Sowell said: “It is not what education teaches us directly, but how well it prepares us to learn ourselves that is the ultimate measure of its value”.

A change in policy that establishes an educational training-for-life environment attractive to education entrepreneurs could bring about a dramatic improvement in learning environments available to young people.

The current one-size-fits-all schooling does not provide the variety that meets the needs of individual participants. It also places major limitations on the ability and incentives of teachers to use their knowledge and abilities to provide high-quality education and training that prepares young people for taking on the challenges of adulthood, especially their working lives.

Imagine how different the skills and knowledge-gathering offerings would be if education and training were to be driven by demand – if competitive markets in education were allowed to develop freely, taking their cue totally from the demands of students and their parents. The current government prescriptions, such as the compulsory curriculum, would have to be confined to those establishments wishing to retain them.

Central planning for the implementation of successful education and training is impossible because no single mind has the knowledge to carry it out. The reason why socialist-style attempts at the planning of any form of economic activity inevitably fails is that the central planners will not and cannot have the information necessary to successfully carry out the task.

Compulsory schooling inevitably results in standardised curricula, predictably aimed at the mythical ‘average” student. There is no such person. All students are individuals who have a vast variety of differing innate abilities and characteristics. They deserve to have their wishes and aspirations respected. They need to be free to choose, subject to the financial implications, their most preferred option from an array of available educational and training offerings.

Among the current government school teachers there will be individuals who would be very interested in running a school on entrepreneurial lines. There would also be other individuals with specialised knowledge and abilities, who would, in a less regulated environment, decide to pass on their knowledge and skills to the next generation. Some of the finance for entrepreneurial-style schools could be provided out of the current schooling budgets through “the money following the student”. Other students in such schools could either be privately sponsored or fully parent-funded.

If the “money followed the student” in government schools, competition for student customers will inevitably drive up the quality of teaching. The attitudes of teachers would change dramatically in the fully government-managed schools that have to compete with other government schools for students and the taxpayer’s money that follows them. Losing students would put pressure on all schools to improve the quality of service they provide to their student customers.

A free and competitive learning environment would offer a great variety of choices and teaching methods. Education entrepreneurs would be seeking to fill every imaginable market demand. Educational supply would vary from facilities run by one person to large organisations catering for thousands of students. Young artists, musicians, engineers, chefs, film producers, athletes, writers and every other conceivable skill and talent would be catered for somewhere.

Forcing young people to sit through years of boring standardised “subjects” and “curricula” chosen by a centralised decision-making body wishing to stamp its own vision on unfortunate young people, is nothing short of a crime against humanity. It is time to allow young people and their parents to make the decisions that are currently made for them by the people who believe, incorrectly, that they have the right to do so.

Breaking free has become a popular term, generally used to describe momentous occasions when people throw off the constraints of circumstances that have kept them in an untenable situation for far too long. The world’s children are trapped and have been trapped for more than a century in the chains of such circumstances. They cannot break free on their own – they need the assistance of adults, especially their parents. It is time for parents to take on that responsibility.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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