Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The National Education Service

Continuing the week's theme, in advance of Friday's talk by Yes, Minister co-writer Jonathan Lynn.

Today's topic: choice in education.

James Stanfield - who introduced his talk to the society earlier this term with this very clip - told us that he uses it in a teacher-training session he gives, on the topic of 'Privatisation.' Sir Humphrey is the embodiment, he argues, of a snobbish paternalism: that the 'discerning' classes can make good choices, but that ignorant ordinary people must have their choices made for them by Platonic guardians - to which group the proponent of the argument invariably belongs. Immediately, Stanfield pointed out, the caricature of government schooling as a beneficient device is dispelled: instead of the market's discipline and pressures to raise standards, state-control of schools is a means, as Sir Humphrey acknowledges, of making sure everyone has an equal chance of a terrible education.

As Sir Anthony Jay - Lynn's cowriter - remarks, in the preface to the IEA republication of a series of excellent essays, 'Government Failure: E.G. West on Education,'
"The system rested on the denial of choice to all parents except the wealthy. Those who deplored this inequality sought to remove it not by extending choice to the less well-off but by denying it to the better-off as well. The defence of the system rested on the absurd argument that politicians, educationists and of´Čücials know better than parents what education our children need unless they are in the top income bracket. The argument absolutely demanded a place in our comedy series."
The point that Jay makes might be countered by the observation that whilst wealthy parents can afford choice, it is monetarily out of the reach the vast majority of people. It is for this reason that there is outrage whenever a politician in government is found to send their children to a private school. Most recently, this was heard over the decision of Barack Obama to send his two daughters to a private school. The outrage shouldn't be over how much he paid, though. It should be that, though the state is spending the same amount, it retains control over where it can be spent. It is the worst of Friedman's four ways of spending money: spending other people's money on other people. Unsurprisingly, neither the quality nor the price are comparable to when people spend their own money on themselves.

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