Schooling: Trapped in a web of special interests

Reading time 6 min.

Governments world-wide are struggling to solve the problem of deficiencies in their schooling systems. Politicians, teachers, educationists, administrators, employers, parents, politicians, policy analysts and students have differing ideas on how the problem should be solved. All agree that something is wrong. All have ideas on the kind of tinkering that is needed to fix the problem. The framework within which schooling functions is seldom or ever questioned; a framework that is little changed since schooling was nationalised in England in the late 19th and in the US in the early 20th centuries.

Politicians want dutiful citizens who will allow them to continue to dominate rather than serve. Teachers want their jobs to be secure and not too demanding. Educationists want their pet ideas to be instituted in schools. Administrators do not want change that will disrupt and disturb the even tenor of their lives. Employers want schools to inculcate the skills they need in their particular workplaces. Parents want schools to correct the errors they have made in rearing their children. All these statements are generalisations, unfair to many fine people, but with an element of truth in them that applies at least to some.

What young people want receives scant attention. To ask them now, under current circumstances, would be unfair. How can they know the extent to which their horizons are stunted and their choices limited? In their wildest dreams they cannot conceive of the vast array of learning options that could become available to them under different conditions. They cannot conceptualise a learning environment that is not allowed to exist; an environment that gives young people opportunities to gain knowledge and skills that build on their innate abilities, includes options that cater for their specific interests, and has them waking up every day, impatient to get to grips with the next learning challenge.

Schooling systems everywhere have become frozen in time. Schools are configured much as they were, and function in the same way they did, a century ago. A 1910 child would feel very much at home in a ‘modern’ school environment, whereas everything else in the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. All other providers of goods and services had the freedom to change and adapt to cater for changing consumer preferences, but not schools.

Despite some dramatic changes in world politics, schooling in otherwise free democracies remains tenaciously politically-dominated, and thus deprives students of the innovative services of the educational entrepreneur, the very person who could make the biggest difference in education. Economist Israel Kirzner, in describing the role of entrepreneurs in society, said, ‘Observe that the entrepreneur does not possess specific knowledge that others do not possess. What the entrepreneur possesses rather is a sense for discovering what is around the corner. If you like, it is a sense of knowing where to find knowledge. A rather subtle and illusive role; but, I submit, an extraordinarily important one.’

Making space that would encourage entrepreneurs to enter the education field could solve schooling problems. They will not do so if they cannot profit from their innovations, which would include methods for providing quality learning experiences at low cost. In all aspects of economic life, wherever entrepreneurs have been allowed to function free of stultifying bureaucracy, they have reduced prices, increased choices, and played a vital role in improving quality of life. Innovation and a market for education will develop if government lets go so that private suppliers can take over the provision of education and skills training. Problems will melt away as competing entrepreneurs offer a wide variety of learning options from which students and their parents can choose. In such a dispensation, for children from low-income homes, government could purchase quality education, chosen by the parents and the children, from a range of competitive learning options made available by private providers.

In such a new education market for young people, it is the consumers who must determine the nature of the product. Families should determine not only which institutions teach their children but also what they teach and how they teach. Families, naturally, will not be in direct control of the learning institutions, but they will influence their activities by purchasing or refraining from purchasing their services, as their purchasing decisions influence the activities of the shops from which they buy food and clothing. The learning institutions will set the terms and conditions under which tuition will take place. For instance, disruptive behaviour by teachers or students is unlikely to be tolerated. Contractual rules would determine what is expected, as well as the consequences for anyone infringing them.

Private providers, because there is no limit to their numbers or the variety of their skills, knowledge, and capabilities, have a flexibility that governments can never have. They can specialise and cater for large or small niche markets whereas governments are compelled to standardise. Consider what supermarkets would be like if they were run by government officials with the power to instruct their private competitors how to run their operations. The officials would decide what kind of food is good for you and whether government or private supermarkets will and may provide it, just as they now decide what and how your children must be taught at schools.

Young people all have special educational and learning needs because they are all different. Their capabilities, characteristics, ambitions and interests differ markedly. Standardised schooling, curricula, teaching methods and learning environments cannot provide the variety that is essential to cater for real student needs. Government-dominated and prescribed schooling is failing so abysmally that it is becoming obvious to everyone that education policy has to be changed fundamentally.

Given the opportunity, parents will appreciate the advantages of spending their own money on purchasing quality learning experiences for their children in a competitive and unhampered market for skills transfers and youth development. Teaching will once again become a highly respected profession with recognition and rewards for merit.

Black South Africans have convincingly demonstrated that it is not compulsion that impels people to study. They were not subjected to compulsory schooling laws until relatively recently, yet many voluntarily attended schools, including private missionary and other schools, and today hold down jobs in every sphere of the economy and society, including top positions in government.

It is personal aspiration, a thirst for knowledge, and parental encouragement and guidance that generally leads to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, not compulsion. Remove the education roadblock of compulsion and the dominance of special interest groups and SA’s young people will excel.

Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation in South Africa and a friend of

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