'An argument already out of date';Book of the week;Reclaiming Education by James Tooley;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Tom Bentley, director of the think tank Demos and author of 'Learning Beyond the Classroom' (Routledge, pound;17.99)

James Tooley's book sets out an important truth that many are only just beginning to wake up to: that the range of educational opportunities which people can and should be able to access already extends far beyond the core services funded and provided by the state.

The emergence of a knowledge-based economy (about which Tooley has nothing to say), and the institutional transformation brought about by information and communications technologies, create huge new possibilities. Education will, increasingly, be centred on the learner rather than the provider.

However, much of this book is spent trying to prove an argument which is already out of date. Tooley wants us to accept, on practical, philosophical and even moral grounds, that markets provide the best means of meeting the challenges of educating a 21st-century society.

He argues that the state should never have got involved in providing education in the first place. This approach resonates with the arguments for privatisation which have emanated for decades from the Institute of Economic Affairs, where Tooley works part-time. (Their starting point is a near-religious commitment to the market as the source of "spontaneous order", choice and freedom.) This argument is important, but fails to gain much practical purchase on current reality. The truth is that commercial providers of learning content and services already play a major part in the delivery of education, and their role will continue to grow. This is part of the long and bumpy transition, which we are just beginning, from a 20th-century schooling system to a 21st-century system of life-long learning.

Tooley is right in saying that the current public infrastructure, which in the developed world has become an integral part of the modern nation state, is neither designed nor equipped to respond to the needs of our future education system. But his argument about markets is not convincing.

First, his assertion that educational "brand names" will be the guarantor of quality in an educational market is shaky. The mis-selling of personal pensions by private providers following market liberalisation is an important lesson in market failure.

Second, although he rightly says that educational innovation is driven by entrepreneurship, he misses the fact that most of these entrepreneurs are civic, social or religious; they are not motivated primarily by profit.

Third, markets never resemble the Hayekian vision of "spontaneous order" which Tooley finds so compelling: they fail, produce perverse outcomes, and extend themselves into areas of life which many would rather not see commodified.

Reclaiming Education does, however, raise an important challenge. There is a bigger place for markets in the education system. They can be an agent of liberation and innovation, as well as of less desirable outcomes.

But if markets are not to dominate our lives as learners, we must be able to create and understand a different kind of system, underpinned by principles which reflect our collective values and priorities, but radically different from the current reality. And in strengthening that challenge, Tooley does us all a service.

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