You Stay Classy, Britain

Had to postpone the Bump reading yesterday due to one of the participants being ill, which is a shame but means it’ll be tighter when we return to it on August 2nd (London schedules are stupid).

I’ve just listened to Niall Ferguson, an economic historian, on Radio 4, giving the last of the Reith Lectures. He stresses that what we need is more independent schools in the country, claiming them to be the only British institutions left that are world class. It’s the only way to save us and make us competitive globally, he says. Tonnes of new ones and a system of bursaries can be set up to help underprivelged kids get into them, rather than letting them wither away in bad state schools.

Going to have to think (and research) more before I give a better response to this but just a couple of thoughts right away.

Niall is obviously a clever chap, and I have read a lot of his work, so I find it odd that he doesn’t seem to address the fact that while increased competition does raise standards and does do better for some, it is still a system that requires there to be losers. “Bad” schools as he puts them, will still be a feature of his independent school utopia. Further more, he doesn’t seem to suggest *why* state schools are so bad – after all, there are good ones. From this one lecture, I can’t be sure if Ferguson’s argument is that “schools outside of state curriculum are inherently best” or that “well funded schools do better for kids” His admiration of the Swedish model of state funded independents that can raise money if they can prove it will improve standards suggests that it might be the second. If so, surely that suggests that a significant investment in state schools, rather than a shift away from them would be just as good if not better? I know he’s not big on government and states the examples of bad American public schools, but these are notoriously underfunded. Also bursaries are tricky mistresses in that while they are great for some, it still doesn’t deal with the issue of selection. It’s nice that some big independents are being charitable and all, but they are still all selective which ends up skewing to favour middle class kids.

I can understand why Ferguson feels so passionately about this. He points out that going to an independent school was the key for him being where he is today and he doesn’t care if that sounds politically incorrect. He uses the example of students in the richer Asian countries getting higher grades by 10% overall because, he says, they have 3% more of their students in independent schools. I don’t think that his view is un-PC (though he does enjoy being so, generally) and I’ve no doubt lots of parents share that belief. “I must work hard to put my child through a good independent school rather than offer them up as a sacrifice to the state sector’s bloody inadequacy.” I completely empathise with that. But, actually, the schools are not the panacea he claims them to be. In fact, I find it amusing that a man as anti-authoritarian as Ferguson wishes for institutions to solve the broad attainment crisis he sees, rather than proposing ideas for shifts on a societal level, especially in the light of research such as this:

A new study by researchers at the University of Leicester and University of Leeds has concluded that parents’ efforts towards their child’s educational achievement is crucial – playing a more significant role than that of the school or child.

There’s interesting, hey? It’s Tiger Moms, not the schools they get sent to that are flinging those kids into the heights of achievement. I guess, fundamentally, I don’t actually disagree with him that it’s good to be able to have a choice of schools but I’m not sure if pushing independents is the way to do it. (Also, finally, if he believes in the market, and there’s a market for such schools, why aren’t there more of them anyway? What state intervention does he want to encourage these schools?)

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