In his fourth and final Reith lecture, Niall Ferguson, explores the nature of Civil and Uncivil Societies. In the course of his argument, he puts forward an eloquent case for Independent education.
"Now, be warned: the view I am about to state is highly unfashionable. At a lunch held by The Guardian newspaper, I elicited gasps of horror when I uttered the following words: “In my opinion, the best institutions in the British Isles today are the independent schools”. Needless to say, those who gasped loudest had all attended such schools.
If there is one educational policy I should like to see adopted in Scotland as well as in England and Wales, it would be a policy that aimed to increase significantly the number of private educational institutions and, at the same time, to establish programmes of vouchers, bursaries and scholarships to allow a substantial number of children from lower income families to attend them. Of course, this is the kind of thing that the Left reflexively denounces as elitist. Even some Conservatives, like George Walden, regard private schools as a cause of inequality - institutions so pernicious that they should be abolished. Let me explain to you why such views are utterly wrong.
For about a hundred years, there’s no doubt, the expansion of public education was a good thing. As Peter Lindert has pointed out, schools were the exception that proved Tocqueville’s rule, for it was the American states that led the way in setting up local taxes to fund universal and indeed compulsory schooling after 1852. With few exceptions, widening the franchise elsewhere in the world led swiftly to the adoption of similar systems. This was economically important, because the returns to universal education were very high: literate and numerate people are much more productive workers.
But we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies in education, especially for societies that have long ago achieved mass literacy. The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything: quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests.
Now, I am not arguing here for private schools against state schools. I am arguing for both - because biodiversity is preferable to monopoly. A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence – that is why American universities, which operate within an increasingly global competitive system, are the best in the world – 21 out of the world’s top 30. While American high schools, in a localised monopoly system, are generally rather bad. Witness the most recent scores from PISA - the Programme for International Student Assessment for mathematical attainment at age 15. Would Harvard be Harvard if it had at some point been nationalised by either the State of Massachusetts or the Federal Government? You know the answer.
In the United Kingdom, we have the opposite system: it is the universities that have essentially been reduced to agencies of a government-financed National Higher Education Service – despite the advent in England and Wales of top-up fees that are still below what the best institutions should be charging. Whereas, there is a lively, and financially unconstrained, independent sector in secondary education.The results? Apart from the elite, which retain their own resources and / or reputations, most UK universities are in a state of crisis. Only seven made it into The Times Higher Education Supplement’s latest global Top 50 - happily, including the University of Edinburgh, just. Yet we boast some of the finest secondary schools on the planet.
The apologists for traditional state education need to grasp a very simple point: by providing ‘free’ state schooling that is generally of mediocre quality, you incentivise the emergence of a really good private system - since nobody is going to pay between £10,000 and £30,000 a year for an education that is just a wee bit better than the free option.
It is, I think you’ll agree, rather ironic that the policies being introduced to address the problem of low quality public education in England are the responsibility of a Scotsman. Of course, Michael Gove picked up the idea from a Fettes lad named Blair." (Audience Laughter)
Niall Ferguson's argument here, essentially is one about quality not fairness. He is arguing that a state monopoly does not raise standards and that there need to be alternatives. As one who runs a school within the catchment of four state grammar schools, I am perhaps more aware than most that many parents will not pay a premium when there are schools within the Maintained Sector who provide a good academic education.