SA could ignite an education revolution

Education and training could be a massive private industry. If governments, in every country brave enough to do so, were to remove the statutory constraints that hamper or totally prohibit the establishment of highly competitive firms, excellent youth education and development programmes would become a reality, and a valuable new service industry would explode into being. Potential participants in that industry would range from one-teacher schools, to multiple franchise operations, to very large firms with education chains supplying many forms and types of education and training.

Governments granting licences to private educators is not sufficient. Providing schooling according to bureaucratic prescription is proving inadequate and unable to deliver the desired results. Innovation and change is desperately needed. It is time for the constraints to be removed.

But won’t that lead to child neglect? That is a matter to be covered by the protection of children under welfare laws, not one that can be solved through compulsory schooling. Professor EG West suggested that parents could prove that their children are being educated in the same way as young drivers prove their driving competency, by the children taking literacy and numeracy tests at designated testing stations. Compulsory schooling is not an aid to education; it is a huge barrier to excellence and innovation, in subject matter, learning methods, variety of options and development of end goals.

The authoritarian system most of us have grown up with is the easier option as it allows virtually no choice, and requires only submission. It therefore is likely that after all statutory constraints are removed, change will start tentatively. The status quo is so ingrained that everyone will experience some difficulty in coming to terms with the new environment. How will parents be able to choose between fifty, a hundred or even more possible learning options for their children?

A new kind of entrepreneur will provide the answers. Child evaluators will test children and suggest where their strengths and weaknesses may lie. Education and training evaluators will advise parents about the best teaching firms in their price range, in closest proximity to their homes, providing the appropriate learning experiences. Parents will get second and third opinions and search widely for information, just as they would when making some other important family investment. If their child does not make suitable progress at one facility, they will have the option to change until they achieve satisfaction.

Far-sighted entrepreneurs and those already in the education business will quickly grasp the opportunities to profit from teaching and transferring skills to young people. The potential benefits will rapidly become clear, the growth in the business will be spectacular. And healthy competition will ensure that purchasers of education get value for money. People with knowledge and skills will provide niche markets for teaching the young in a vast variety of disciplines. For some time every liberated society will experience exciting and positive turmoil. However, when the new education environment becomes stable and settles down, the variety, effectiveness, methods of presentation, and the entire atmosphere in which the process occurs will be on such a high plane that it will be unrecognisable to current educators and their students.

The possible learning offerings defy the imagination. Every conceivable skill for which there is a demand, will be taught, and if there is no demand, it will not be taught. For example, given the importance of sport in the modern world, it is relatively easy to predict that there will be sports academies of all kinds: golf, soccer, tennis, basketball, hockey, swimming, cycling, cricket and a host of others. No doubt the sport will take precedence but the future stars will be persuaded to acquire the essential skills, such as financial management, speaking abilities, language fluency and media training to augment their sporting abilities and manage their future. But the most important single feature of a liberated learning environment is that demand must and will determine future education offerings.

Competing private providers of knowledge and skills, and young people seeking what they have to offer, will come together for mutual benefit and bring about the greatest enhancement in human capital that has ever occurred. They will turn what, for many, is now an entirely negative process, into a positive, purposeful learning experience with end goals chosen by learners and their parents.

Economists debate whether ‘education’ improves economic growth. Discerning ones ask the obvious question: What kind of education are we talking about? South Korea doubled and re-doubled its GDP in a period of twenty years. During that period families in South Korea reportedly spent 15 to 30 per cent of their budgets on private education, which in 1996 was 50 per cent more than the government education budget, and produced students that excelled at maths. The high economic growth rate (7.2 per cent per annum, 1980/95) indicates that the productivity of the country’s people was above average and suggests that the significant private spending on education contributed positively to the outcome. Robert Barro found a correlation between growth and the quantity and quality of education, with the quality having a more significant influence.

Remarkably, an education revolution does not require government to do anything more than to remove whatever laws or regulations there are that prevent parents and their children from making their own decisions about what to learn, how to learn, where to learn, and when to learn. Research in India, Nigeria, Kenya and other countries carried out by Professor James Tooley of the UK’s University of Newcastle has demonstrated that parents, including poor parents, care about their children’s schooling and will go to great lengths and use their own meagre resources in attempts to obtain a better quality education for their children from private schools. Instead of attempting to provide education and training for young people, government could provide those who need assistance with the means to purchase it for themselves from competing private providers.

All that is needed for the education and training revolution to commence is for one jurisdiction or country that recognises the massive potential that a totally entrepreneurial learning and skills transfer environment can provide, to remove the regulatory shackles. One country or jurisdiction with political leaders who are truly concerned about the welfare of their people could transform the entire world. The demonstration effect will be so convincing that restrictive laws everywhere will topple like dominoes. With SA’s current formidable education problems, the government would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by changing its approach to education and igniting the education revolution.

AUTHOR Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation. 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 Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 21 June 2011

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