Upon the Ruins of State Education We Will Build Education 2.0

From the BBC: Gove to call for end to illiteracy ‘within generation’

“The education secretary is to set out his intention to end illiteracy and innumeracy within a generation.

He is also expected to say money should be deducted from child benefit payments for parents who allow children to truant then refuse to pay fines.”

According to a report by The Times over five hundred thousand children in the UK leave primary school illiterate each year. That’s enough to fill Wembley stadium nearly six times over. Just tragic.

We’ve had 134 years of compulsory state education in the UK. It has failed. It will never serve around 3.5 million children and provide educations that meet their individual needs because by its very nature it is incapable of doing so. State education is a monopoly. In the enforced absence of competition (i.e. freedom for people to run schools and teach their own curriculums) there is no strong incentive to adapt and innovate in order to better meet children’s needs and, as a result of its bureaucratic nature, it’s much more difficult to – and takes longer. Eventually it becomes far easier to force children/parents (customers) to adapt to it, rather than it (the provider) to adapt to them.

This is entirely opposite to the nature of the relationship between providers and customers in free markets in society. Wherever competition exists in the provision of some good or service, producers must adapt in order to better satisfy the needs/preferences of their customers as best they can because their continued existence depends upon doing so. Even where little or no competition exists in a free market there is the ever-present possibility that a rival producer will start-up and grab a share (perhaps bigger share) of the market, and so there is still incentive to innovate and adapt on the part of the existing producer – albeit to a lesser extent.

The only ‘competition’ state schools have comes from private schools. But this is hardly any competition at all since relatively few people can afford to attend them. Private educations are priced so highly, it should be noted, not because private schools hate poor people, but because there’s very low demand for private education. Few parents see the point of paying for something when you can get it for ‘free’ from the government. If the market for private education was every parent and child in society (in other words if compulsory state education was abolished), then the number of private schools would be far, far greater and the cost of a private education would drop dramatically – almost certainly to zero or very close to zero. If we consider that any parent with the desire too can educate their child in reading, writing and maths for free on the Internet today, then it’s clear that this prediction is not just wishful thinking.

Central planners for state education, at any given moment, have essentially no idea of whether their plans for delivering education are meeting the needs/preferences of children and parents because there is no way for society to signal satisfaction or dissatisfaction in any meaningful way. In the free markets of society we express our like or dislike for any given good or service by abstaining from doing business with X and instead doing business with Y. It’s this freedom of choice, freedom of action on the part of individuals that drives the quality of goods up and the cost down – and incentivizes innovation. That’s the beauty and power of liberty.

State education is the opposite of liberty, which is precisely why it doesn’t produce these effects – and looks ridiculously cumbersome and sluggish compared to the astonishing progress being made in areas of society where even at least some liberty is present.

One thing that’s now obvious to central planners, however, is that compulsory state education is failing large numbers of children every year. Thousands of teachers, who struggle on a daily basis to squeeze some kind of value out of the ossified, lifeless system that they and their students are forced to occupy, have known this for some time. Some simply can’t stand the shame and frustration of systematically and consistently failing their students – and quit.

Read this moving letter by a teacher who did just that. Her bitterness, anger and sadness are palpable.

Dear Mr Gove,

I am writing to thank you for teaching me so much about education. I have been a primary school teacher for 14 years and have always worked in challenging, inner city schools with many children who have complex behavioural and emotional needs. According to my performance management, I am an ‘outstanding’ teacher. I feel that over the last few years my skills have diversified considerably.

I am proud to be able to say that each year my pupils’ achievement and attainment have improved. I have become skilled at pinpointing what they need to learn and prioritising their experiences to ensure they succeed in the core subjects. Sacrifices have had to be made but, despite what they would like you to believe, there is not a single pupil who has not wanted to achieve and be successful.

The last few years in particular, my job has become even more varied. As we no longer have any external support and advice to help us, we have learned ‘on the job’ how to be counsellors, behaviour specialists, social workers and mental health workers. We use our instincts when dealing with children with complex emotional and behavioural needs. We do everything we can, but you never can tell without the training. Hopefully those children experiencing extreme difficulties will pick up how to become good citizens and be able to live within, and contribute to, the community. I can only hope that they will know how to create a supportive and nurturing environment for their own children to succeed in the future. Maybe they will feel confident and proud of their achievements despite the lack of professional, quality specialists available to support their own complex needs in their formative years.

Until recently, I was not adept at data analysis. I now know that the pupils we are teaching are not simply children, they are numbers, percentages. The hours I have spent analysing data to decide which children need intensive afternoon intervention groups, those who need that extra ‘boost.’ Those children do not take part in the afternoon history, geography, art, science, music, PE or RE lessons as they are struggling with maths, reading and writing. They understand that they must miss out on subjects they are more likely to engage with, feel confident in, so they have the opportunity to achieve the required level in writing, reading and maths. They spend all day, every day struggling. Slowly feeling more and more like a failure, becoming more and more disengaged.

It is amazing that every one of my pupils knows what level they are working at and what level they need to be at the end of the year. Children are so desperate to achieve and to please others that they naturally put themselves under a huge amount of pressure. If they are not working at age related expectations they believe they are not doing well despite the amazing progress they have made. They are in tears. They feel the pressure. They know they are not where they ‘should’ be. They know already, at primary school, that they may not be ‘successful’ in the future. They know that the only subjects worth anything are reading, writing and maths. They know that their options are limited.

A big part of teaching is, and always has been, acting. You draw your audience in; encourage them to take part and to be inspired, challenged and enthusiastic about what they are discovering. There is nothing better than a class full of buzzing pupils, excited about what they are learning, taking ownership of the lesson. This is becoming increasingly hard to achieve when we expect so much from them. There is little time to have fun, to enquire, to be intrigued, to be children. They have too much pressure. They must, “compete with the world’s best.”

Why are we not letting them grow as individuals? Why are we damaging their self-esteem and confidence by trying to make them all fit into the same box? To ensure a successful future for our country we need to give children a broad, balanced curriculum which enables everyone to excel at what they are good at. They need to feel empowered and valued for their individual skills to be able to take risks and push the boundaries to be successful. How is that possible if they have had a restricted education? How will all those talented people who are not necessarily ‘academic’ excel in their different industries if they were not given the opportunity to hone their skills throughout their education? How will this improve our country? What sort of adults will they turn in to? I know I never had those pressures when I was a child.

I handed my notice in last week. I can’t do this to them anymore.

When a passionate and dedicated teacher arrives at the conclusion that the best thing she can do for her students is to quit, then this is a strong sign that not only have we lost our way, but that we’re heading in entirely the wrong direction.

Predictably, education secretary Michael Gove’s ideas for a ‘solution’ amount to little more than increasing the weight of regulatory bureaucracy on teachers’ shoulders (i.e. ‘raising standards’) and worse still increasing the government’s coercive powers over parents. His idea to get more parents to force their children to attend state school is to make deductions from their state child benefit payments. This will create a perverse incentive for good parents to use forceful means against their children in order to get them to attend school for fear of not being able to put food on the table tomorrow. For the worst kind of parents who already aggress against or neglect their children this will give them an even stronger inventive to abuse them because they won’t want to miss out on the luxuries that child benefit payments enable them to enjoy.

The government first bribes people to have children by offering them an income (which is money coercively collected from other people), and now plans to take some of it away should parents fail to force their children to attend government schools where they often get bullied, treated like prisoners and poorly educated. At this point you might want to ask yourself what kind of society are we actually living in here? Well, it’s the sort where all manner of botched and flawed individuals who make it into government have the power to make decisions and choices about things like education which overwrite everyone else’s and which everyone must obey.

Gove’s plans reveal a perverse logic and inhumane worldview that pervades his mind. If it is true that increasing the punishment of parents increases their incentive to make sure their children attend school, then why not just threaten them with death? The ultimate punishment should result in the ultimate incentive, by his logic. Never does it seem to occur to people in power that if you have to force people to participate in your particular scheme or solution to a problem, then perhaps your idea isn’t so great – and isn’t what is best for everyone; as politicians so arrogantly believe.

Gove’s plan is the opposite of the solution. It will only make things worse for teachers and especially children because it requires further diminishing the autonomy and liberty of teachers, and increasing the coercive powers of government over parents.

Parents, schools, teachers and children need liberating from one thing and one thing only: government.

We must liberate the provision of education from the monopoly grip of government and put it back into the many hands of peaceful society – where it belongs. When people are as free to open a school (either bricks and mortar or online) and provide education as they are to open supermarkets, sell clothes, make computers and code apps, then and only then will we put an end to illiteracy. Only in an society where liberty is not prevented from flourishing will we have schools that aren’t prisons for our children. Just like in today’s world where free markets in peaceful society produce increasingly cheaper goods and services to suit all tastes and budgets, a liberty-orientated society will have a multitude of schools that cater to every type of child. This will be a spontaneously ordered school system where the best schools will prosper and the poor schools will rightly go out of business, and the possibility of the emergence of new and better schools will always exist; it will be an exciting breeding ground for educational technology; one that will make the process of educating and being educated an enjoyable experience for teachers and students alike.

Such a society was no doubt the vision in the minds of those who created compulsory state education 134 years ago. People in government then and now believe education is too important to be left to free markets, to liberty, but the truth is it is too important not to be.

Look at the world of plenty, progress and innovation all around us. It’s foundation is liberty. Imagine a dynamic, adaptive, progressive education market that actually inspires children to learn and doesn’t discourage them. A market brimming with schools where teachers are free to teach as individuals and to the best of their ability. We already have a microcosm of such a society, which we call the Internet. The Internet is characterised by two things: the absolute liberty of the actors within it, and the absence of a central coercive authority. And yet it is fast becoming the best and most accommodating school children have ever had. We have the blueprints, a working model.

The time has come for all the entrepreneurs, investors, teachers and parents out there to start building education 2.0 atop the ruins of the failed experiment of state education. A new Education that will seamlessly bridge the digital world and the physical world, and eradicate illiteracy forever. To our children we owe it.

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