Tuesday, June 06, 2006

School Vouchers

To me free market has the ability to solve many of the world problems from Dublin transport to world poverty. It is the one force that allowed the west to out perform the Soviet Union and allow its people to be free. I have talked here about privatising Bus Eireann and Aer Lingus and I believe it private industry is so much better then Public in so many ways. But one thing I don’t think it can solve is education.

The market solution to schooling is fully privatising and school vouchers. The thinking is classic market arguments. Firstly you allow the private sector to provide much of the education if not all of it in the state. People from lower economic are giving state vouchers so that they can afford the fees and richer parents stump up the cash. The thinking being that as parents will have the ability to choose their school they will be able to shop around. The private schools will have to compete and thus improve. Leaving us with a prefect school system. And in theory it is great, competition between schools can raise standards. But there is one fundamental flaw with the arguments. Parents!

In America with public schools not wanting prayer in schools for reasons of equality and not teaching Intelligent design for reasons sanity, many parents want their little Johnny or Mary going to a school where they pray to god and be thought that the earth is 5000 years old and dinosaurs were put on earth to test our faith. This not market theory is the main driving force behind the growth of school vouchers in America.

The state should not be paying for religious schooling. We already do it in the public sector and it is time we moved beyond that. I have no problem with qualified religious people nuns etc teaching in the class room subjects like Maths and Irish but not religion. It is not the states place to teach religion. Religion should be a persons own concern not the states. If the private school is run by a religious order the money used to provide religious education must not come from the state and neither should the time spent come from the mandatory school day.

In theory in a country like Ireland where the quality of the education counts more then the religion. It would seem a free market in education can work. But where parents do not chose their school by religion they do chose it by class and status.

Schools I think need to be somewhat streamed. In a class of mixed abilities the clever kids can find the pace of the class to slow, while the less academic may find it too fast. This already happens in effect with higher and lower levels. Perhaps a few more layers need to be added. However to do this requires increased resources. Anyway. Classes where people are at the same level allow for the teacher to maximise the Childs education. Therefore in a free-market you would think that parents would want to place their kids into the most suitable environment. This will not happen.

Firstly to most parents little Johnny and Mary are great. The thought that little Johnny or Mary might not be in the top stream school will not cross their minds thus they will apply to the school they think they deserve not the school that is best suited. But the greatest barrier to a fully working model is snobbery. Many parents would prefer their kids to be with their societal equals rather then their intellectual equals. Thus if the top school in the country has the choice between a great student from Ballymun and a mediocre student who’s parents can donate to the school fundraiser who are they going to allow in. The address of the child is all was going to be a factor. As the reputation of the school will be it’s greatest selling point what school wanting kids from D4 would allow in kids from Ballymun.

School vouchers work quiet well in Sweden. One of the big reasons it works is that the schools cannot select students. They take people on a first come first served basis. Hence removing the above I guess elitist elements of the school choice. Also they remove the ability to charge top-up fees hence removing the situation where the financial status of the students parents counts for the school.

Streams also need not be in separate schools. Streams can be within the same schools indeed they should be. While I kid maybe not good at English they may be good at Math. They should have the opportunity to exist in separate streams in separate subjects. This could only happen if schools take in variety.

However the system in Sweden is not really free-market. It is utilising the private sector. The market is not free, schools have to take in who applies on a first come first served basic. Also a good streaming system requires school not to focus on one section. When parents get the chance to choose their school they need the information on the school. League tables do not tell you who is the best school. They tell you who has the best students and best students depend on many factors including intelligence and home situation. If parents really want to get the information they need to make correct decisions then School League tables need to reflect students improvement not results. Any school can give an education that gives a 600 point student 600 points. But only a great school can give a 400 point student 600.

There is a lack of schools in this country. Class room sizes are simply too big. Allowing the private sector to provide some of the extra classes may help. Also if more go into the private sector the current funding could have better focus. But that is not going to solve the problems. The Swedish system only provides 6% of the places. A drop in the ocean but none the less a significant drop. Like in the health service the private sector should be allowed to expand to help the public sector but not replace it. It does need to be regulated to prevent top-up fees and student selection but it does have potential to lower class sizes and to put into place the necessary class rooms needed in the Celtic Tiger.

Our economy needs the best of the best not the best of the rich. I think that a free and open market has a great ability to free people by giving them the opportunities to succeed however I don’t think the free-market can give them the education needed to seize those opportunities. However private sector input can be of benefit and should not be discounted.


Anonymous said...

Great post. From what I've read, I agree that a school voucher programme, ideally like Sweden's would be a good move.

Godwhacker said...

Great post Simon!