We all know the tune. Private schools are a hotbed of elitism, pillars of a neo-feudal class system where people’s position in life is determined by birth and family name, not merit.

Not so, argues this week’s edition of The Economist. The success of private schools in producing well-educated alumni who find their way into top positions is “not based on money, but on organisation“. And, “working-class Britons struggle because they are overwhelmingly educated in poor government-run schools.”

Apparently, many of us have an emotional aversion against the idea that something as mundane as pecuniary incentives should play a role in education. Should teachers and headmasters not uphold a professional ethos, instead of engaging in money-grabbing? Should they not see it as their mission to assist in the formation of comprehensively educated personalities?

Certainly, but that does not mean that economic common sense suddenly loses all effect at the school gates. In most businesses, suppliers know that if they do not keep their customers happy, there will be no nice holidays this year, and no new car either. Where this simple incentive structure is absent, targets are a highly imperfect substitute, and better ones have not yet been found.

The Economist concedes that at least in Britain, the private education sector consists of a luxury market segment and virtually nothing else, but goes on to explain that this is not an inherent feature of private education. “Parents might grumble at what the state provides, but unless it is worth almost nothing, most will balk at paying all over again out of taxed income.” They quote Professor James Tooley’s fascinating research, which shows most private education services in the world could not be further away from the high-end of the market. In the poorest parts of the world, Tooley found ingenious people who managed to create schools out of nothing. They also quote Civitas’ Robert Whelan, who explains that in the little that there is of a low-cost education market in the UK, “planning departments put all sorts of obstacles in your way”.

There are alternatives. In social democratic Sweden with its quasi-voucher scheme, private schools now have a higher market share than in the alleged home of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. Sweden’s political establishment is good at lambasting the free market rhetorically, while implementing reforms that allow the market at least some constrained space. Britain’s political establishment is good at doing the opposite.

Head of Health and Welfare

Dr Kristian Niemietz joined the IEA in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow, becoming its Senior Research Fellow in 2013 and Head of Health and Welfare in 2015. Kristian is also a Fellow of the Age Endeavour Fellowship. He studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). In 2013, he completed a PhD in Political Economy at King’s College London. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and at King's College London, where he taught Economics throughout his postgraduate studies. He is a regular contributor to various journals in the UK, Germany and Switzerland.

8 thoughts on “Don’t blame private schools, learn from them”

  1. Posted 09/07/2009 at 11:55 | Permalink

    It is not necessarily true the performance difference between private and public education lies in practice difference. Organization alone is not enough.

    Private school pupils are a self-selected group. The main difference lies in the parents. Parents who are ambitious for their children. Most parents are not, particularly since the change in attitude toward children driven by 1960’s social scientists. It is the discerning buyer that creates greater quality as in all supply demand.

    Add that to a system managed by the unionized worker (teachers) for their own benefit and public education is doomed.

  2. Posted 09/07/2009 at 11:55 | Permalink

    It is not necessarily true the performance difference between private and public education lies in practice difference. Organization alone is not enough.

    Private school pupils are a self-selected group. The main difference lies in the parents. Parents who are ambitious for their children. Most parents are not, particularly since the change in attitude toward children driven by 1960’s social scientists. It is the discerning buyer that creates greater quality as in all supply demand.

    Add that to a system managed by the unionized worker (teachers) for their own benefit and public education is doomed.

  3. Posted 09/07/2009 at 13:28 | Permalink

    And they have voucher schemes in the US where very effectively statistically controlled experiments show the benefits of private schools are greatest for the poor, the not-so-bright, the disabled and so on. Without price signals we do not know what to produce and how to produce it: it is as simple as that.

  4. Posted 09/07/2009 at 13:28 | Permalink

    And they have voucher schemes in the US where very effectively statistically controlled experiments show the benefits of private schools are greatest for the poor, the not-so-bright, the disabled and so on. Without price signals we do not know what to produce and how to produce it: it is as simple as that.

  5. Posted 10/07/2009 at 10:12 | Permalink

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the not-so-bright should gain most from privatisation.
    If I was an unmotivated teacher, I would focus most on the brightest in class, simply because they require the least effort. They understand most things right away, even if I don’t rack my brain over how to make things understandable and interesting. They are like an easy customer who never has any complaints.
    And in the present system, headmasters neither have the incentives nor the means to remove unmotivated teachers.

  6. Posted 10/07/2009 at 10:12 | Permalink

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the not-so-bright should gain most from privatisation.
    If I was an unmotivated teacher, I would focus most on the brightest in class, simply because they require the least effort. They understand most things right away, even if I don’t rack my brain over how to make things understandable and interesting. They are like an easy customer who never has any complaints.
    And in the present system, headmasters neither have the incentives nor the means to remove unmotivated teachers.

  7. Posted 14/01/2010 at 12:23 | Permalink

    […] library do not educate anybody. Private schools serve their clients because it is in their self-interest to do so, and they possess the autonomy to act […]

  8. Posted 14/01/2010 at 12:23 | Permalink

    […] library do not educate anybody. Private schools serve their clients because it is in their self-interest to do so, and they possess the autonomy to act […]

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