‘Free’ schooling is anything but free

Government schools offer schooling at no charge or at a fee that is substantially below the cost of delivery. Taxpayers bear the cost. Parents who prefer private to government schooling then have to pay twice for schooling. They pay once through their taxes and again in tuition fees.

Despite the competitive disadvantage suffered by private schools in competing with so-called ‘free’ schooling, private schools are attracting increasing numbers of students worldwide. Parents purchase more than tuition from private schools although better quality education appears to be the primary product everywhere.

An ethos, basic philosophy, religious view, sport and other factors are often contained in the total package the parents look for in a school. In some cases parents may be intent mainly upon protecting their children from the authoritarian nature of teaching in their local government school.

During the difficult school boycott years in the Johannesburg area, parents bought daytime safety for their children in schools outside the townships, possibly as a priority equal to learning. These were so-called ‘street schools’ in under-utilised high-rise buildings in central Johannesburg. Working parents buy child-minding services as well as learning opportunities from pre-schools. Whatever parents’ motives may be, if they are prepared to buy private schooling for their children when government schooling is available ‘free’, they are living proof that parents care about their children and would educate them in the absence of compulsory schooling laws.

So-called ‘free’ schooling is, of course, not free. Taxpayers, many of whom have no children, pay the cost. It may be argued that the childless taxpayer derives socio-economic benefits from a schooled society, such as lower crime rates, less poverty or a more peaceful society. More than a century of universal free and compulsory schooling has shown that these arguments are invalid. In fact, some researchers would argue that universal private fee-paying schools, with poor children supported by private philanthropy and taxpayer-funded welfare, would result in less juvenile frustration and thus less crime.

Employers who may have believed that it is the duty of schools to produce skilled, reliable and diligent workers will surely by now have revised their expectations. They may have believed in the past that part of their taxes represented a contribution towards the cost of a good workforce. However, many of them will now have spent large amounts of money and expensive supervisory time on training their employees, including remedial education to overcome the deficiencies of poor schooling. Can they realistically continue to believe that as taxpayers they are getting value for their contributions towards the cost of schooling?

In previous times, authoritarian employers who required unthinking obedience from employees may have received some value from free and compulsory schooling. However, firms that operate in the modern knowledge economy need thinking, innovative employees with entrepreneurial flair. These are traits that current government-dominated schooling systems are bound to smother. Firms would be infinitely better off if they could retain the ‘schooling portion’ of their taxes and use the money to provide bursaries or loans on a flexible contractual basis to those talented young people who would otherwise not receive the kind of education needed to develop their talents fully.

James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle has described how poor parents in developing countries are purchasing better schooling for their children from private schools. The actions of these parents epitomises one of the most significant developments in schooling worldwide. Because they regard ‘free’ government-provided schooling as inadequate they feel impelled to use part of their meagre resources to give their children a better chance in life. They also disprove the notion that poor parents will not be prepared to forego other necessities in order to purchase schooling for their children.

One of Tooley’s latest discoveries, described in an article in the UK’s Times newspaper, is that 75% of schoolchildren in the shantytown of Makoko in the Lagos State of Nigeria attend private schools. His research team combed slums and villages in Nigeria and Ghana and found that 70% and more of schoolchildren in the areas they visited attended private schools. There are 50,000 people living in Makoko, “many in wooden houses built on stilts sunk into the dark waters of the Lagos lagoon”. In this unpromising environment the researchers found 32 private schools teaching about 4,500 children from the families of poor fishermen and fish traders.

Reasons parents gave for paying for their children to attend private schools rather than sending them to zero-fee government schools were similar to those that Professor Tooley found in the slums of India: “government school teachers don’t turn up, and if they turn up they don’t teach”. Testing of 3,000 children carried out by the research team found that children from the private schools in Makoko outperformed government schools, achieving 14 percentage points higher in maths and 20 percentage points higher in English. Yet the education commissioner’s representative was of the view that parents of children in the private schools, where teachers received salaries that were about a quarter of what government school teachers earned, were being hoodwinked by unscrupulous businessmen and that the schools should be closed down.

Similar sorry circumstances are found in many poor countries; poor parents attempting to obtain better learning opportunities for their children in conditions where government education officials and teachers regard schooling as their personal fiefdoms. Children’s lives are forfeit to political agendas, ideologies, and vested interests.

So-called ‘free’ education then becomes prohibitively costly, in terms of the cost to taxpayers and the wasted youth of unfortunate non-learners. ‘Free’ education in the sense of the right of parents and their children to make their own decisions about what they will learn, who will teach them, and how they will learn, would be less costly in all respects. The cost of providing the schooling will be lower and fewer young lives will be harmed or destroyed.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of their new book, 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.

* The book Unchain the Child: Abolish Compulsory Schooling Laws (Paper back, 126 pages) is available from the Foundation @ R120 (including VAT) + postage. Tel: (011) 884 0270.

FMF Feature Article/ 08 November 2005 - Policy Bulletin / 28 July 2009
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