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James Tooley says what the state’s contribution to education should be

This evening I attended the E. G. West Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by James Tooley, one of my favourite public intellectuals. The audience was large, and our response was attentive and at the end, enthusiastic.

Tooley started by describing the discoveries of E. G. West concerning the huge contribution to education in nineteenth century Britain made by the private sector, which had pretty much licked the problem of mass literacy and mass numeracy, only for the state then to come crashing in, crowding out the private sector and stealing all of the credit for what the private sector had accomplished.

Tooley then described how he has personally been finding the exact same story unfolding in the Third World right now. There too, the private sector is running state education ragged.

In the course of his lecture, Tooley presented this complete and comprehensive list of exactly what the state should be contributing to the funding, regulation and provision of education:


As often happens with my photos, people who care about such things will quibble about technical adequacy and artistic impression. But, I trust you get Tooley’s message.

I realised while listening to Tooley talk that I have been somewhat losing track of what he’s been up to lately. So when I got home, I ordered a copy of his book, The Beautiful Tree, which he mentioned in the course of his lecture, and in which I hope to learn many more of the details of what he’s been finding out about one of the great success stories of the world now.

During the Q&A after the lecture, Tooley was asked what Britain’s politicians should be doing about it all. What reforms ought they to be trying to contrive? Tooley said he expected very little from our politicians, predicting instead that if changes along the lines he would like do come, it will be because of foreign educational enterprises opening branches here, offering a cheap and effective alternative to state education at very little extra cost. That, said Tooley, will be when the good educational stuff starts happening in Britain, again, if it ever does.

LATER: A few more pictures here.

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12 comments to James Tooley says what the state’s contribution to education should be

  • Jeff

    Any idea if the talk will end up online?

  • I must give full huzzahs to the editors for a delicious collection of photos, namely, the Zimbabwe notes, the stack of papers next to the inflation headlines, and this comprehensive, yet empty list of justified roles for state education.

    Great stuff, guys.

  • For some reason, John Cage popped into my head.

  • Paul Marks

    E.G. West’s “Education and the State” is a classic.

    I was astonished to find it in the library of the Technical College where I did my “A” levels (back when the Great Lizards ruled the Earth) – I suppose (at least in those days) the scholarship of the work even impressed the “mainstream”.

    James Tooley is quite correct – both on logical grounds, and from the results of his own observations.

    If people in the slums of India (at their own expense) can provide better education for their children than the state provides (and Tooley has shown that they can) then what is the excuse for people in the West?

    People who earn vastly more.

    State education does not work – if it did I would not have had to be taught to read by a old lady in a little village a few miles from here (“if only the lady had taught you to spell and…. as well Paul” – O.K.) and it is more than “just” its failure to help the poor.

    The one thing it does seem to manage to do is to spread collectivist ideas or, perhaps, “attitudes” would be a better word – the attitude that everything really important is to be paid for by “them” (the state) with people neither helping themselves or other people.

    This attitude may start at education – but it spreads to everything. With the population, to some extent, being infantilized.

    So that the first reaction (even of good people) to any problem is “the government must do something” – even if they have no trust for either the politicians or the administrative machine, the belief that the “government must do something” is ingrained into them – because it has been put there from their most early years.

    By the ideas taught in state financed (and state influenced – for the people who go to private schools still hope to go to state dominated universities) – ideas such as (in history) that at first all was darkness and the the state moved in the darkness and said….. (this about sums up economic and social history), and economics (monetary and fiscal stimulus rules O.K.) and all over the arts and social sciences (and even, now, creeping into the physical sciences – now they are being taught from a “social” point of view).

    But also by the basic ATTITUDES the institutions produce.

  • RRS

    “Public” education is one of those issues which provide us with notable, clear, empirical examples of how civil (non-governmental) instrumentalities become “institutionalized;” with the resultant institutions thereafter being co-opted into governmental functions.

    Whilst examples of cultural differences exist (e.g., the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt), in most of the “West,” the civil instrumentalities formed from private co-operative efforts seeking objectives they determined (education of those for whom they were concerned). Once the institutional forms developed from the instrumentalities, there were changes in the ways of determination of objectives; indeed, in the way of selecting objectives.

    The continuity of those changes facilitated, in some cases invited, political intrusions into the determinations.

    In the U.S., despite calls for “reformation” in reaction to the ills generated by the historic developments, the most effective process to end the stagnations is circumvention; that is, basically to form new civil instrumentalities that will by-pass the functions of what are now institutions with internal “systems” (unions, administrative bureaus, “policies,” and other vested interests in the public funding), shifting the dertermination of objectives back to those with direct concerns with outcomes and effects.

    That has begun, and will now flow into post-secondary education.

    This is such a notable example, that it should give cause to examine the many institutions that have developed in all parts of our social structures, expecially those that have been co-opted into governmental functions of varying degrees. The way out, to revived dynamism of the “West” can well lie in initiatives to develop new civil instrumentalities – DIY or better DIOurselves.

  • James

    Out of interest, did he talk about the education market in Haiti?

  • On seeing that picture, I immediately thought of Brian Clough: what club chairmen know about football – nothing.

  • Steven Rockwell

    One of the biggest problems I see with comparing education in places like India and Indiana is that in India the parents of the poor children are doing everything they can to give their children the chance to get out of that poverty. In the US, many of the poorest parent will do nothing to provide anything for their own children and expect the government to do it for them.

    It isn’t just schooling, but food, clothing, housing, everything. Remember the story of the woman yelling at John Lindsey (then mayor of NYC) “It’s my job to have kids, Mr. Mayor, and your job to take care of them.” That mentality and political philosophy has taken over.

    I would love to not have government schooling at all, but the sad truth is many of the sperm donors and baby mommas out there don’t care what happens to their crotch fruit. So what do we do with their children? If the “parents” won’t send them to school, not providing public schooling ensures a permanent underclass with no opportunites for success. The inner cities may be full of illiterate fools by choice, but at least they have that choice and it isn’t the de facto norm, which it would be if we eliminated any public schooling.

    That said, we really need to reform the way education is presented in the US and redefine its role in society.

  • Steven: it’s all about incentives. Children do have minds separate from their parents (or “parents”, as the case may be). Most children are naturally curious and want to learn, they also want to better themselves materially. Also, you posit a dichotomy of government schooling or nothing, and it is a false one.

  • Paul Marks

    Steven Rockwell – you say stop talking about India, talk about Indiana.

    Very well.

    The people who settled Indiana were farmers and traders and craftsmen.

    They either taught their own children to read (and so on), or (if they did not know how themselves) they paid others to do so.

    It was not perfect (people were poor – and some children fell through the cracks), but things improved over time.

    Public (government) Schools started – imitating practices back East (especially in Mass), but they came later after most people could read (and so on) long before Public Schools became “free and compulsory” in Indiana (that was true of most nonSlave States – in Slave States people were forbidden to teach slaves to read and write).

    And even after Public Schools became the main provider of formal education in Indiana (for Protestants – the Catholic minority had their own schools, it is often forgotten that American Public Schools did not start out athiest, as they are today, they started out de facto Protestant and remained so till World War II – the “liberals” have lied about the history of American state education, as they lie about everything), still….

    Even after Public Schools became the main provider of formal education in Indiana they remained under parent control – local School Boards were just that (local) and the State School Board did not boss people about very much (schools being financed by local property taxes and controlled by the people who the property tax payers elected).

    “Paul this is ancient history – I am talking about the modern welfare class”.

    But I am not.

    Why should the welfare class control what happens to education in Indiana?

    And it is NOT the welfate class anyway – it is those that claim to speak for them (a very different thing).

    Have a look at the drop out rates in Indianapolis, Indiana.

    Chicago used to call itself “the city that works” – but that title really belongs to Indianapolis.

    If there is one city in the United States which has bucked the trend of the “Rust Belt” it is Indianapolis – it is a city that (as much as anywhere does – in these days of decline) still “works”. And the State government of Indiana (as well as the City/County “Unigov”) is well known as (by the low standards of government) to be about as good as government gets in the United States.

    Yet look at the drop out rate of schools.

    Not the amount of money that goes in (which is huge) – no look at the lack of education in the children the schools spit out.

    The children of the welfare class.

    The system of Public Schools DOES NOT WORK – it fails the very people who it is supposed to help.

  • Stephen,

    If kids did not open doors to funding and housing, then I am certain the casual nature re procreation you describe will be significantly curtailed.

    Of course it will not end, but the scale will, IMHO, be reduced to more manageable levels, one the voluntary sector will be more capable of denting.

  • Micha Elyi

    …foreign educational enterprises opening branches here, offering a cheap and effective alternative to state education at very little extra cost…

    Expecting a bunch of Irish lads with tonsures to arrive and re-open the monastery schools that were England’s original “alternative to state education” is too much for poor post-Anglican England to hope for as she slips back into the Dark Ages in which she slumbered before Christendom awakened her, eh?

    Maybe some Catholic sisters from Zimbabwe could be made available in twenty years time or so.