Why keep children in chains?

Why do the world’s children not have the benefit of interesting and inspiring teaching from the first day of school? How is it possible for schooling to continue failing so badly when there are so many good ideas about the way in which knowledge can be imparted to young people?

Why are young people not offered learning experiences consisting of wonderful, challenging and exciting discovery processes? Why is it that schooling appears to fail so badly, leaving large numbers of people functionally illiterate in the world’s most advanced countries, when schooling is costing their taxpayers huge and increasing amounts of money?

Why do British students dislike school so much and stay away in such numbers that the education department has installed an electronic surveillance system and other control measures costing £995 million since 1997, a costly move that appears to have failed to control truancy? A further £560 million is earmarked for spending in 2005 and 2006 to deal with the problem.

Clearly, the British education department believes that the solution to its truancy problem lies in more effective taxpayer-funded methods of incarcerating students. It intends to use force against both students and their parents, including prosecution and £100 fines. There are no signs that the department is engaged in any form of introspection as to whether the real problem lies with itself and the schooling system it imposes on obviously unwilling students.

Political critics of the British government suggest that vocational training should be made available, class sizes reduced, ‘better flexibility’ maintained between academic and vocational courses, and the curriculum reformed so that young people will see school as relevant. No word about the possibility of the simplest solution of all: leaving those young people alone who demonstrate that they do not like the government schools.

Or perhaps the British could try what worked exceptionally well for their young people more than 150 years ago; totally private schools. The foundations for the current problems in British schooling were laid in 1880 when compulsory schooling laws were introduced in England and Wales at a time when the large majority of children were already attending school.

The early 19th century English governments placed severe taxes on paper to discourage the poor from learning to read and write. Policy then incongruously shifted to providing a small amount for subsidies to private schools to encourage literacy while retaining the paper tax to discourage it. Then later in the century, when most of the population had become literate despite government’s attempts to prevent it, schooling was made compulsory and ‘free’ government schooling introduced. Contrary to the intention of W.E. Forster, the architect of government involvement in the provision of schooling, the majority of the private schools were forced to transfer their operations to government or close down because poor parents, who had been paying school fees, chose the taxpayer-funded option.

Compulsory schooling laws unavoidably require government officials to define ‘schooling’ in order to apply the law. How else do they charge a parent with failing to ‘school’ a child? Not unexpectedly, education officials everywhere have either completely lost sight of the basic purpose of the legislation, or are using it to further their own ends. Logically, any parents who ensure that their children become literate, numerate and ‘educated’ in any normal sense of the word, should be left alone by officialdom, but that is not what happens. Children are expected to go through prescribed, standardised curricula devised by government ‘experts’, who set out in great detail what children have to learn at various stages of schooling.

Instead of the mandated standardisation and conformity that now exists, students need an almost endless variety of educational opportunities from which to choose. Only then will they have any chance of finding offerings that most closely fit their characteristics, personalities, aptitudes and talents; all those things that differentiate them from all other individuals. Parents whose children do not fit into government schools will immediately recognise the problem. They will not so easily recognise the solution – a competitive market in young people’s education – because it is not allowed to exist.

Governments around the world have reserved the field of education to themselves. In doing so, they have posted legislated ‘Keep Out’ signs informing entrepreneurs that they are not welcome. Thus, while education is meaningful and useful only if it is based on the way the child actually is and what the child actually wants, education systems worldwide treat children as if they are all the same. They are taught what the government decides they must be taught; the children’s interests and aptitudes, and their parents’ wishes, are disregarded. In economic terms, schooling is supply-driven, not demand-driven.

Now imagine how different things would be if education were driven by demand – if competitive markets in education were allowed to develop. Removing barriers to entry is all that would be necessary to create a market led by innovative entrepreneurs discovering ever-better ways to impart knowledge, methods, skills, paradigms and principles to young people.

What entrepreneurs are already doing in the diversity of choices they offer in clothing, food and entertainment, they can also do in learning experiences and skills development. All they need is the freedom to discover what consumers really want. They can do this efficiently if governments will refrain from scrambling price signals, preventing consumers’ messages from reaching suppliers or, more seriously, monopolising schooling through exclusionary legislation.

Author: Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation and author of its new publication, 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/ 25 October 2005 - Policy Bulletin / 20 october 2009
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