Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The education lottery

It's easy to criticise Johann Hari - but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. On this occasion, however, he has something resembling a good point when he says that most 'comprehensive schools' are anything but:
"[W]e have almost no comprehensive schools left. The children of the wealthy are educated in successful schools that select by mortgage price. The children of the poor are ring-fenced away in warehouse schools, where they mostly falter and fail. Because there isn't much academic selection, this system is called "comprehensive" - but only because because we have defined comprehensives down, accepting as a comp any school which doesn't have the 11-plus."
What he says is, I think much more the case in England rather than Scotland (there is no 11-plus here) but in general he's right: we don't really have very many comprehensive schools, certainly not in our cities; what we have instead is neighbourhood schools. If you live in a shit neighbourhood, your kids will go to shit schools and if you live in a good neighbourhood, chances are the schools will be much better too. Negative exceptions include Glasgow where even if you live in a good neighbourhood, your kids will still go to a shit school where they run the risk of having me as their teacher - but in general I think the pattern holds.

Johann is also right, I think, in discerning behind the hostility towards the Brighton school lottery a desire to insulate postcode selection against any element of chance:
"The parents in the most plush catchment areas will fight like lionesses to preserve their privilege, and the national Labour leadership will be queasy about taking them on with measures that look like a shift to the left. So it's up to the rest of us to lobby our councils to make sure Brighton is not only a burning beacon of real educational opportunity, but the start of a nationwide bushfire."
Indeed. But before attempting to initiate the 'brushfire', could we perhaps consider a couple of points?

One is, if the lottery principle was extended and this by chance produced a set of school placement results that were even more class-stratified than they are now, would anyone be happy with, or even accept, the results? I doubt it.

The other is, could we not give up quite so easily on the idea that, rather than devising mechanisms whereby people are given equal opportunities to escape shit schools, it just might be possible to make our shit schools less shit? I do appreciate this quaint notion will be insufficiently profound for the erudite minds on the pro-choice or pro-grammar school left of today.


dearieme said...

I have a friend who bought his house (in a Scottish county town)with enormous care to ensure that his bairns would go to fine primary and secondary schools, though it did mean that the house was costly. But he'll still rant against private schooling "as a matter of principle". Naturally, he's incapable of explaining what that principle might be.

Anonymous said...

Does Hari have children?

Bishop Hill said...

But choice and specialisation are intended to make all schools less shit. They're only half of what is needed, sure, but you can't say we're not trying.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps someone can explain how it's a "beacon of read educational opportunity" if the council forces (or tries to force) the children of the comfortably-off into bad schools?

Who exactly is supposed to gain from this? (Apart from the councillors who get a boost to their feeling of power, of course.)

Igor Belanov said...

I would have thought that the intention is that it will provide more opportunity to some of the 'underprivileged' who otherwise would be stuck in the bad schools. Whether or not it would work is debatable. I'm with Shuggy in that I think it would be a good idea to devote more attention to bad schools. How 'choice' is supposed to improve the education system is beyond me. Who is going to deliberately, and masochistically, choose to send their children to failing schools? The whole idea seems to rest on the belief that at the moment failing schools are doing so on purpose, and that only competition will force them to buck up their ideas. Rather simplistic I would have thought.

George S said...

I thought that attention had been directed at 'bad' schools since the Thatcher government. The idea was to sack bad teachers and put bad schools to shame through league-tables, get bad headmasters to resign then put superheads in charge.

I don't think education is quite like that, nor is it simply a case of making 'bad' schools 'better'. If exam results are the test then everything has been getting better and better and better for years.

The malady goes far deeper. I feel very sorry indeed for young teachers sent to battle through tough schools. They don't start as bad teachers but it saps their energy and eventually they can become ineffective.

The malady is a cultural and social one and it started some forty years ago. It is not a matter of grammar schools or comprehensive schools. It is the question of education itself: what it is for, what it consists of, why it is worth having?

The concern of various administrations has been that people should be educated for the labour market, not because it is a good thing to learn. Everything is directed to outcome not process: it is outcome only that is measured so all effort is directed to a distant only faintly conceivable goal. But if you are on the labour market to get rich it's quicker to rob a bank or sell drugs or sex.

The problem is particularly acute for boys who find that whatever qualities and energies they have are of little or no value in the system.

This is not going to be easy or quick to turn around, and no amount of farting on about bad schools and making them better is going to change that. What are you going to change? The teachers? The kids?

Bishop Hill said...


Yours is a bizarre argument. You might well ask why do we need competition in any area of life. Why do we want choice in shops? Surely nobody is going to go to a bad shop? Why do we want choice in cars? Surely nobody is going to buy a bad car?

The argument is that you only get progress by competition, not that people aren't trying. It's only competition that allows us to find out what works.

Roger said...

Competition works fine (at least from the consumer point of view) as long as you are talking about real commodities that can be meaningfully valued, bought and sold in a free market.

Education like healthcare is however not a commodity in this sense and the only results of 25 years of imposed pseudo-marketisation on both systems is to create just the bureaucratic quagmire that free marketeers used to accuse socialism of.

Simple solution - use the pre-Mitterand French education system as a model.

Under that system the Minister of Education in Paris could supposely tell exactly what every child in France was being taught at any moment simply by glancing at his desk calendar.

No choice, no proliferation of absurd pseudo-subjects, no league tables, no lotteries, no denominational nonsense - every school giving every child the same standardised education.

Of course you'd still have underperforming schools but at least you'd have a firm baseline to assess which they are and to help you find ways of incentivising the best teachers to go there.

Igor Belanov said...

Bishop Hill-

But in shops etc the market takes place through the medium of MONEY and there is no pretence of equality. In education, health this isn't the case and in theory everyone is entitled to equal standards within the state system.

Anonymous said...

Some of the problem re “rubbish v half decent schools” must surely be down to an element of “parents that don’t give a damn v parents who do give a damn”.

I know many will find it difficult to credit but there are parents who see little “Jimmy/Jane” as perfect, see little merit in education and will give you a good kicking if you criticise the apple of their eye.

All the parents who do give a damn and can manage to scrape up the means, will try like hell to get their child in as “good” a school as they can manage. In any event they will attempt to supplement the school’s efforts.

Until you can by some magical means provide every child with parents that really do give a damn there will be those who are disadvantaged.

Maybe a system involving compulsory pooling of all the children born in the country by date preference and then randomly dishing them back out again to women who had given birth again by date might do the trick?

Possibly excepting children of the political class though…

Phil A

Bishop Hill said...


Education vouchers.

Planeshift said...

Which won't solve the basic problem.

Good Schools - or schools that are perceived to be good - are likely to be oversubscribed, so how do we decide who gets in and who doesn't. In other words what is our rationing system?

Vouchers don't offer a rationing system - all they can do at best is subsidise. The good schools simply ration by price, raising the price and thus requiring parents to top up their vouchers. The ones who can't afford to get priced out. All you've done then is create a subsidy for private education and the middle classes - who already do ok out of the system.

The system at the moment is largely rationing by house price, and again ensures the middle classes do fine.

Indeed the system largely perpetuates itself, as good schools are mainly good schools precisely because of the intake of pupils they get.

Bishop Hill said...

They put up the price? That sounds like an opportunity for a competitor to me.

james higham said...

Viewed globally, or EU-ally, there's no incentive to make bad schools better. The Dumbing Down agenda won't accommodate it.

Planeshift said...

BH - Do you think the market for education will work exactly as the economics textbook describes?

Or will there be large barriers to entry, established brands, geographical contraints etc?

Michelin star restaurants don't care about the prices charged by Burger King, they'll only worry about prices at other high quality restaurants in the area. Similarly good schools will only worry about prices at other good schools in the area.

Secondly do you think all that is needed to turn a bad school into a good school is simply a change of management?, or is it more likely that the performance of a school is related to factors like area, the intake they get etc.

Bishop Hill said...


Well, I don't think any market is ever perfect, but we are not after perfection, only something that is better than the disaster zone that is education in the UK under the management of the state.

There will be barriers to entry I would have thought, not the least of which is the large amount of capital required to open a school, but capital will be forthcoming so long as there is money to be made. The experience of every privatisation so far is that there is alway money to be made because state enterprises are monumentally inefficient.

Brands will be established yes, but so what? There's so much scope for innovation, this can't be seen as insurmountable.

Geographical constraints are likely to be a factor only in very isolated places. I'm live in a rural area and the evidence of there being much larger numbers of schools from the first half of the century are everywhere. If society could have more schools prior to the internal combustion engine they will certainly be able to do it now. Even in the rural areas where competition is more difficult, the existence of brands will compensate. No brand wants to risk damage by having poor performance. I'm a small shareholder in a chain of nurseries. Recently there was a claim of maltreatment of one child at one nursery, which halved the value of the company in the space of a few days. That's why private businesses will work very hard to ensure consistent performance even where there is no competition.

Your point about pricing misses the point that we are talking about rapacious capitalists here. If prices go up at one school, the opportunity opens up for every school chain in the country, and if we had any sense in the rest of the world too. It's not limited to the locale.

It's nothing to do with a change of management. This could be done within the state sector. It's to do with a change of incentives both for management, staff and consumers. Incentives really do matter.

The performance of a school is a pretty loosely defined thing - it's a very broad measure which is talked about now because it's the only way anyone can make any sense of the question that needs to be asked of every parent - is the school providing the education you want? A parent in the state system who is unhappy has essentially one option - to take the child to another school which is teaching the same syllabus with teachers who have been trained in the same methods. This isn't a choice really. If you have a market then every parent should get the chance to move their child to a school which is really different. Different syllabus, different teaching methods, different attitude.

What I'm trying to say is that the question of intake is much less important when you have a market. It's a matter of whether the parent is happy with the school's performance.

Planeshift said...

"disaster zone that is education in the UK"

But I guess thats the difference between us. I don't see things as being such a disaster overall, after all if we judge the system by exam results then things have never been better!

That is a superficial way of judging the system I know, but I'd say most state schools do an ok job with the hand they are dealt. If your child behaves themselves, knows how to read and write and puts a reasonable effort then the majority of comprehensives and colleges will be good enough to get them into university - where they are likely to them outperform privately educated pupils. The problems lie simply with the minority.

The last thing the system needs is yet another series of reforms that risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Anonymous said...


Planeshift, If you believe the exam results then I have an investment opportunity you will not be able to resist.

It just so happens that I have recently come into exclusive posession of share certificates in a Bolivian Goldmine. Yours for only £150 each....

Phil A

Bishop Hill said...


Phil A has hit the nail on the head. The objective is not to pass exams, or to go to university. It's to become educated.

Employers are all complaining that they are getting graduates who can't write a grammatical sentence. This is the evidence that the education system is failing. A degree is rapidly becoming a worthless piece of paper.

Planeshift said...

Like I wrote - it is a superficial analysis ;-)

(Although no more superficial than basing one's judgement of the system on what employers are alleged to be saying.)

On the other hand shares in Bolivian Goldmines...where do I sign up?

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