Why The Left Is Wrong On Education

I read with interest an op-ed piece in The Guardian by former Education Secretary under the previous Labour government, Estelle Morris, in which she argues that the very idea of profit-making schools threatens the “moral purpose” of education. I thought that it rather neatly summed up one of the major flaws in British left-wing thinking, and the reason why they are wrong on educational policy in particular.

To be fair, in her letter Morris states clearly that she is open to a greater mix of providers in the education space, and that this can bring benefits at times:

The role of the private sector has already been contentious. It’s certainly easy to make the case that it has not been a universal success – some school meals services and messy PFI contracts, for example – but the new “mix” ought to be welcomed. There is a wider and more diverse range of service providers, many bringing new ideas as well as experience, as schools increasingly control their own budgets.

This is to be welcomed, as there are those on the left who seem to reflexively oppose anything but centralised, standardised provision of public education, a stance from which Morris is at pains to distance herself.

Unfortunately, there the open-mindedness comes to an end. Harking back to a time before Thatcher, Morris recalls:

Thirty years ago, “not for profit” would have been assumed to be at the core of a key public service like education – part of its reason for being.

Here, right here, is the problem. Morris speaks as though this worldview was noble and that it died out thirty years ago, but to my mind it is an ignoble thing, one that it is alive and well in the hearts and minds of many left-leaning and Labour supporters in Britain today – the belief that part of education’s very reason for being is to not turn a profit, to deliberately shun the gaudy world of capitalism and the idea of generating a return on investment. This is actually quite a shocking sentiment to hold – the idea that the needs of the customer (the schoolchildren) must compete with any other motive or “reason for being” when educational policy is considered, and that among these valid and competing interests is the need to provide public services on a not-for-profit basis, regardless of the impact on quality. But of course, there are many such competing interests when one subscribes to this worldview – those of the teachers unions as well as left-wing ideology in general.

I should add a disclaimer at this point, that I am writing specifically about education policy in Britain, and that my views on these topics as they relate to the United States are different and will be covered separately in future.

We then reach the core of Morris’ argument:

At times of falling school budgets any surplus cash should be reinvested in schools rather than into people’s bank accounts; this is irrefutable but it is not the core of the argument. Profit can drive improvement. But the financial bottom line will never provide the motivation to deliver what we want and need from schools.

Firstly, I would like to know from Estelle Morris why the financial bottom line cannot deliver this motivation – surely the correct behaviour and outcomes from providers can be incentivised if the correct performance metrics and standards are used and applied?

But more generally, I would like to tackle this point with a hypothetical question. Suppose that there are two separate school systems at work in Britain, one state owned and not-for-profit and the other a regulated but private sector-delivered system, both receiving the same amount of funds per student from the government. The private system achieves significantly higher results in terms of test scores and long-term employability than the public system, and diverts a proportion of its budget surplus to dividend payments for shareholders. The public system achieves lower results and reinvests any budget surplus back into the system. In this scenario, should the private system be effectively neutered and shut down by being forced to reinvest its entire surplus back into operations rather than making payments to shareholders, even if this means that all students in the country then have to join the lower-performing public system? Leave aside for now questions as to whether or not privately delivered education would achieve better results, I’m just interested in the principle here. Yes or no?

Morris concludes:

There is a moral purpose that underpins education and, although by itself it is not enough, it must be the driving force. Without it, it’s too easy to accept that it’s not worth trying, yet again, to help a child to master a skill, or to rationalise that the social class divide is something we’ll just have to live with. Understanding this moral purpose for education is not the preserve of those in the public sector; others bring the same passion and determination and share in the same joy success brings, but all this feels strikingly at odds with the drive for profit. Value for money, certainly; careful management of resources, essential; but there can only be one set of shareholders – and that is the children.

I see in this argument a lot of hazy worries and doubts about whether profit-making companies can grasp and nurture what Morris calls the “moral purpose for education”, but no acknowledgement of the doubts – proven doubts, incidentally – that those of us on the right have about the public sector’s ability to deliver the value for money and good resource management that she also admits are essential. For-profit providers have not been given the chance to prove whether they can deliver public education to a good standard, because they are not presently allowed to do so. The public sector, however, has proved time and again that they cannot deliver quality educational outcomes that represent value for money or careful management of resources. And yet Morris proposes that we spurn the promise of the private sector and give the public sector carte blanche to continue just as they have for years, free from any competition or external impetus to improve.

The more that one hears arguments such as this from the British left, the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that for them, the ultimate prize, or the “reason for being”, is not to offer the best standard of education that can be provided to British children, but rather one of two very different, rather grubbier goals: either to ensure that every child receives precisely the same standard of education, even if this means embracing the lowest common denominator rather than striving for the best and risking unequal outcomes, or else having the ideological satisfaction of knowing that all public services are provided centrally by the state, whatever the cost in terms of wasteful spending or squandered potential.

A higher moral purpose indeed.

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