State schools have failed us during the pandemic, and beyond – privatise the lot of them

Although teachers’ pay has slipped back in recent years, it is still a secure job carrying a goodish pension. So the news that teachers have been awarded a pay increase greater than that for nurses will have raised many eyebrows. Whatever the questions over the NHS bureaucracy’s performance in the Covid-19 crisis, very many ordinary nurses have faced an extremely stressful and sometimes dangerous time caring for the victims of this dreadful disease. Significant numbers have died. State-employed teachers, on the other hand, have had a far less traumatic experience.

In fairness, there are plenty of examples of government-funded schools – often (though not exclusively) academies, free schools and grammars rather than those run by local authorities – where teachers have put in terrific efforts to stay in touch with their students, giving out assignments, marking work and delivering online classes.

But the overall record has been very patchy indeed, with many children (including one of my own) receiving no contact or significant guidance at all. By September they will have been out of school for nearly six months, and it is not clear that they will get back to a full educational experience even then.

The unions have resisted attempts to get children back into school, or to suspend the traditional (but currently pointless) long summer holidays to enable some catch-up. While it is reasonable for unions to seek to protect the health of their members – the ostensible reason for dragging their feet on returning to work – the risk to teachers of infection has been greatly exaggerated.

But it is not just the unions which are to blame. Management of many schools has also been exposed as unimaginative and reactive rather than innovative and enterprising. The performance of the Department for Education has been poor, concentrating on producing page after page of over-prescriptive guidance about how to reopen schools safely rather than chivvying head teachers to get things moving. Ofsted – so keen on castigating schools for insufficient diversity or over-reliance on traditional teaching methods – seems to have done little to help them in the current crisis.

By contrast, independent schools seem to have been faster to innovate and to deliver online and/or personalised support to students. They would have reopened  their buildings much sooner were it not for insurance issues which the government failed to resolve.

This better performance may in part be because independent schools employ more committed and flexible staff, attracted to teaching as a vocation rather than simply as a meal ticket. But clearly the financial incentive to provide continuing educational support is a huge factor: parents are not willing to pay fees without getting a service and private schools have had to respond.

This incentive is totally lacking in the state sector where parents can do nothing to show their displeasure at schools continuing to be closed or run on a skeleton basis for months on end. The money comes in whether schools are open or not; even teachers who are effectively furloughed are still on full pay.

When all this is over, we should go back to first principles in thinking about our schools. State education in Britain has left far too many youngsters functionally illiterate and innumerate, lacking the skills needed in the 21st century. Many schools are dangerous places where discipline is lacking and bullying is rife. International comparisons show us slipping down league tables, particularly in relation to many Asian countries where education is more highly valued than here. The Covid-19 nightmare has shone an unforgiving light on wider systemic weaknesses in our schools.

Why do we involve government at all in education? It began in the nineteenth century with the unassailable principle of protecting minors. If some parents were unwilling or unable to provide or pay for education themselves, it was argued, the state needed to step in.

Our Victorian ancestors did not envisage that education should be free for everybody. Subsidies should only go to the poorest. Most parents, as scholars such as E. G. West have pointed out, could afford at least some contribution to schooling costs, and their spending power helped ensure that schools be responsive to their wishes. Unlike today, when most UK parents must accept what they are given – or, at the moment, not given – by the government.

My friend James Tooley has shown that people in many countries, even in desperate poverty and crises far worse than our own, are willing to pay towards their children’s education. Perhaps we should think of returning to this principle in the UK.

One relatively painless way to bring this about might be via some form of voucher. We could give all parents a voucher equivalent to existing average age-related expenditure per school pupil. This could be used in the private sector as well as in the state sector, and could be topped up by parents’ own contributions, thus giving many more families access to private education. If inequality is the concern, poorer families could be given vouchers with a bigger cash value.

Over time, the value of the voucher would be frozen and all parents would have to contribute as the average costs of schooling rose. State schools – which should be privatised, whether as for-profits or not-for-profits – would have to compete on both price and quality of education. Different school styles could emerge, including mixed modes of online and face-to-face teaching, different lengths of school day and school year, different curricula. The distinction between state and private education – for so long something which has maintained pernicious class barriers in Britain – would gradually disappear.

Guardian readers, union officials and other blobby types would have conniptions. Why should our wonderful ‘world class’ education system be turned into a supermarket, where people pick and choose what schools they want for their children?

Well, it wasn’t the supermarkets that let us down in this crisis, was it? They never closed, while their poorly-paid staff ran ostensibly much greater risks of infection than those in the classroom.

If our teachers don’t like the marginal risks which a return to school might bring, they should perhaps consider another career. Sadly, there are going to be plenty of young and not-so-young graduates who will be looking for such secure and reasonably well-paid employment in the near future. They might make a better fist of it than many current teachers.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

6 thoughts on “State schools have failed us during the pandemic, and beyond – privatise the lot of them”

  1. Posted 23/07/2020 at 14:46 | Permalink

    “The distinction between state and private education – for so long something which has maintained pernicious class barriers in Britain – would gradually disappear.”

    Indeed. If the UK average spend is 6k per head, then if you want to pick your school and have 2 children then you have to earn 24k before tax for that right. i.e. you suffer a 100% tax rate on 24k of income if you have language, religious or other reasons for wanting to choose a school not on the government list. That is the main driver of the hard split between private and state schools. A voucher scheme would create a much more gradual continuum. If the government had any creativity they could offer a voucher at 90% of the state spend. I am prepared to bet that a private company can achieve that cost saving and match quality – and long term 10% off the education budget is a decent size number.

  2. Posted 24/07/2020 at 10:40 | Permalink

    Len, I am an independent school teacher who has worked throughout and indeed my school has delivered a full curriculum remotely to all our students, including years 11 and 13. While recognising that some state schools have delivered little to their students, there are a number of other issues that you don’t mention. Two of which, that most people who read the news must be aware of, is that some schools have had to focus on more urgent issues, namely, making sure kids get fed in the absence of school meals, and secondly, the unrealistic assumption that all families/students have i) suitable tech and internet service and ii) the luxury of an adult to sit and supervise the primary age kids, in order for the kind of online education that my school has delivered to be feasible. I have greatly disliked the “teacher blaming” that has been prevalent in the press and indeed in this article. How can you can say “the risk to teachers of infection has been greatly exaggerated” when UK schools have not been operating in a normal fashion since March? We simply don’t know yet what will happen to infection rates. But we do know that British classrooms are small and buildings overcrowded, with little outdoor space, by developed country standards. And no-one in government has seriously addressed the hundreds of thousands of students, and staff, who need to travel to school on public buses or trains (less of an issue in other developed countries where students attend schools closer to home and/or there are school buses). I am all for more innovative education but let’s not hold teachers accountable for decisions, infrastructure and economic and social issues that are not within their control!

  3. Posted 25/07/2020 at 13:21 | Permalink

    Independent school teacher – a couple of good points there but (1) I think your caution about the risks to teachers is excessive. As indicated in the link to a Times article in my text, there appears to be no evidence worldwide of significant pupil-teacher infection. (2) You are right that in some deprived areas state school teachers will have been busily engaged in supporting poor pupils, in my own middle-class location this doesn’t seem at all plausible, frankly. But I don’t like arguing from my own experience – what I’d like to see are some government or Ofsted figures on the proportion of school students who have received significant support during the lockdown. Given the initiative shown by the ONS in using new statistical sources to track the economy, the DoE could surely have done something similar for schools. That they haven’t suggests that the reality is closer to the picture I sketched than they’d like to admit.

  4. Posted 26/07/2020 at 11:28 | Permalink

    An excellent piece. I seem to remember when I was involved with children’s education in the 1990s that the government of the day did introduce a voucher system at reception level or below. The vouchers could be used across state and private sectors. The scheme was administered through local authorities and there was a bit of jiggery pokery going on but exactly why it fissled out I cannot remember. Worth investigating; James Tooley might have the answer?
    The response by the independent schools teacher does include useful valid points, but it does not refute the idea of vouchers. I would also add that a lot of state funding has gone into capital works and schools so not sure why there is overcrowding etc except that indigenous population growth and immigration has probably accelerated child numbers at a fast pace.

  5. Posted 27/07/2020 at 16:31 | Permalink

    The Guardian seems to endorse the view that private schools have done much better than state schools during lockdown.

  6. Posted 16/08/2020 at 19:14 | Permalink

    Lets go back to before 1870?
    Perhaps not

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