Limited role for the state

31st January 1997 at 00:00
EDUCATION WITHOUT THE STATE By James Tooley Education and training unit, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North St, London SW1P 3LB. Pounds 12

Workplace illiteracy, high absenteeism and backward technology indicate the failures of private industry. That is not how James Tooley begins the summary of his pamphlet, but my variation copies his generalised denigration.

He actually writes: "Functional illiteracy, youth delinquency and lack of technological innovation all point to the failures of state schooling." Schools fail a high proportion of their pupils because they are state schools. Creating a real market instead would make schooling more effective, more varied, more innovative - and more truly democratic.

Tooley's analysis begins with the question of whether government should be involved in education beyond insisting that children of feckless parents should be provided for and helping the poorest parents with the costs. Beyond that, matters can safely be left to the market.

He first develops his argument through a "thought experiment", modelling what "education without the state" might look like under various conditions, then by reviving E G West's revisionist history of Victorian schooling in which voluntary effort and private provision are presented as having done well. Both then and now, Tooley sees inadequate provision as remediable through the operation of supply and demand provided that the supply side is free to respond. Every time he makes that claim, I wanted to add - and provided that there is profit to be made. Although he is careful to deal with many objections, that particular one is ignored. Yet entrepreneurship and altruism do not march easily together.

The national curriculum is demolished with enthusiasm as being misconceived, and as fundamentally incompatible with an "authentic" market.Tooley argues "competing visions" should be tested by consumer demand.

His final chapter then presents some "modest proposals" for liberating demand, first by reducing the compulsory school leaving age to 14 and giving young people the cost of their next two years of schooling (about Pounds 4,000) as a Lifelong Individual Fund for Education to be spent as and when they see fit. Sponsors could top-up the fund on grounds of individual merit or need. The supply side would be freed to respond by building further on the benefits already obtained from greater school autonomy. From Tooley's perspective, privatisation means liberation. Collective responsibilities, or public interest in common educational purposes, are discarded as gods that have failed. Unlike much recent ranting from the Right, Tooley does not travesty the positions which he challenges and I hope I have not misrepresented his. Even where his lucid analysis fails to convert its readers, it will compel them to think hard about why public education deserves defending.

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