One of the few policy areas where the current British government at least appears to be making some headway is education. Here is an article by Toby Young, describing what he confidently believes is such progress, and I hope he is right. (Earlier thoughts by me here about Toby Young’s educational ideas and efforts here.)
Whether, in the longer run, these new free schools will go anywhere especially good remains to be seen. Two thoughts about them occur to me.
First, the customer is still, at least partly, the government. Government money follows the choices of parents. But what if a future government, rather than going to the bother of totally shutting down such schools, started instead following its own money and demanding all kinds of relatively subtle changes and impositions, with a view to grinding them down a little less publicly, and then blaming them for the failure that was inflicted upon them? That’s not at all hard to imagine.
When truly free markets start, they often do so in a very muddled way. Only when the worst of the muddle is sorted does progress then get seriously under way. When, on the other hand, there is immediate improvement, of the sort that Toby Young describes in his article, that can mean merely that government employees have been replaced with other government employees. At first, the new government employees do a better job. Later, progress falters, and eventually things start getting worse, again. The best public bid becomes replaced by the most enticing private bid, made covertly to the politicians. There’s been a lot of that lately.
It is tempting for right wingers to assume that, merely because the slighted government employees – in this case the old school unionised state teachers – are angry about having their monopoly snatched away from them, that the new approach must necessarily be a wholly good thing. Sadly, it does not follow.
My second thought concerns the rules that these new free schools must follow. My question is: Are they allowed to threaten expulsion to pupils they decide they don’t want to keep? I can find no answer in Young’s piece, but suspect that they probably can. If that’s right, then that really is a huge step in the right direction, towards freedom of association.
That may sound an unnecessarily depressing, even belligerent, way to talk. But in schools, in my limited but still very real and quite recent experience, the right to expel is the biggest single difference between success and failure.
Paradoxically, if you can expel, you very seldom actually want to, because the mere hint of the threat solves your problem. But if you cannot expel, you cannot threaten it either, and problems then multiply. Add that to the fact that, quite properly, you also cannot threaten tortures of the sort that used to be routine in schools but which are now frowned upon (like severe beatings or solitary confinement or compulsory hard labour), and the school has literally no power over its pupils, other than its power to amuse. As soon as those pupils work that out, the ones who prefer mayhem to learning or even to being otherwise entertained become the rulers of the place. There is simply no way to control them. At that point, just about everyone involved wants out of there.
I have personally witnessed this kind of thing, when doing various stints of volunteer teaching. The problem was not the age of the pupils or the incompetence of the teachers. In other circumstances the same pupils would have behaved fine, and in other institutions the teachers would have done fine work, a fact that many failing teachers act upon, thereby becoming successful something elses. The problem was the rules.
If Toby Young’s school is obliged to go on attempting to educate whichever pupils they are at first happy to welcome but later wish they hadn’t, then look out Toby Young. Trouble. Just as corruption and monopolised failure takes a bit of time to organise, so too does it take time for pupils in a place like Tony Young’s school to work out that the people bossing them around are actually defenceless against determined rebellion, if that is the situation. But if that is the situation, the pupils will work it out, and that will have consequences, of the sort that Toby Young will not like at all.
If, on the other hand, Toby Young and his comrades can simply say to such potential rebels: “Our gaff – our rules – break our rules and ignore all warnings, and you’re out”, then the problem won’t even arise, because the mere hint of expulsion will end such problems at once.
Expulsion is the opposite side of the coin to the right to leave, the coin being (see above) freedom of association. Freedom of association is, I think, one of humanity’s very best ideas. If all those present in some institution prefer, however grudgingly, being there to not being there, and if everyone there is tolerated, however grudgingly, by everyone else, then everything just works so much better. There may be lots of other problems, but tackling them becomes so much easier if all those who don’t even want to solve those problems can be told to get the hell out of there, or can just get the hell out anyway.