Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Reclaiming Education,

Introduction: Rethinking Education, pgs 14-16,
by James Tooley

Suppose that in the late nineteenth century it had been decided that
children needed an adequate diet to grow up into good citizens and
employees, and it was observed that not all children were getting
this. Hence the state, invoking the 'protection of minors' principle,
intervenes to ensure an adequate diet for all children. Through a
bold series of ever-more encompassing reforms, starting with the
setting up of a National Bread Board through to the creation of the
Department for Nutrition, the system is in place by, say 1970,
whereby the vast majority of children attend Local Nutrition
Authority (LNA) kitchens for all their eating requirements. Children
are directed to their local kitchen by their LNA, neither they nor
their parents have any choice in this matter. Food is provided free
at the kitchen, and officials strongly warn against provision of food
outside of the kitchen. (In any case, as parents would have to pay
for such additional food, there is very little motivation for them to
do so.) Attendance at the kitchens is compulsory for all children,
and they have to eat three meals a day, at set times. All children
have the same amount of food and the same amount of time in which to
eat it. If they haven't finished one course when the time is up, they
have to move on to the next. They eat their meals in their own part
of the kitchen around tables with 30 other children of the same age,
supervised by one member of the Feeding Profession. If they do not
eat their meals at the set times, they are punished, often by serving
them the meal that children least like when everyone else has gone

The Nutrition System as outlined comes under mounting pressures. In
many kitchens, it is alleged, food is of poor quality, leading to
illness and listlessness. Some of the Feeding Profession cannot
control their charges, with consequent riotous meal-times. Moreover,
it is pointed out that because diet is not centrally prescribed, some
kitchens are experimenting with different kinds of food, with
disastrous consequences for children thus exposed. Samosas served at
one school instead of steak and kidney pie creates a huge national
scandal. Questions are asked in the House of Commons. All this seems
grossly unfair, particularly as at other institutions, meal-times are
orderly and the food good, at least in part. Finally, the children of
the rich, it is noted, can afford to opt out of the state system, and
have food in restaurants or even, in rare cases, cooked at home by
their own parents. This adds to the inequity of the system, because
it is agreed that the quality of private restaurants is better than
the state kitchens, and because home cooking clearly deprives
children of their national nutritional entitlement. It is apparent
that urgent reforms are needed.

The party that wins the next election favours 'markets' as a panacea
for the country's ills. It introduces market reforms into the public
services, including Nutrition. To avoid alienating the Department for
Nutrition and the Feeding Profession, the government sets up a
National Dietary Division (NDD) and brings out a National Diet (ND),
prescribing the quantity, quality, speed of eating, table levels and
so on, to take place in all kitchens in the country. To ensure
national accountability - so important in a democracy - a testing
regime is enhanced, with frequent eating examinations and publication
of kitchen (league) tables. But these are not the key market reforms.
These, enthuse the politicians, liberate nutritional demand and
supply. On the demand side parents are now permitted to choose their
preferred kitchen from the two or three in their area. Moreover,
whereas previously kitchens had received funding regardless of how
many children they had to feed, now they are to be allocated a
specific amount for each child. That should keep these kitchens on
their toes! On the supply side, kitchens are now given control of
much of their budgets and a rather small number of brand-new
expensive kitchens opened, with superb modern cooking equipment. With
these demand and supply-side revolutions in place, the government
presents its Nutrition Market.

However, it is not long before critics begin condemning the market.
Says one professor: look how markets exacerbate inequality! For it is
clear that, under the reforms, some kitchens are far more popular
than others. Lo and behold, just as one could have predicted, the
popular kitchens are able to choose between parents. Under the guise
of consumer choice, it is the producers who are empowered, not the
customers, and particularly not the disadvantaged, who end up in the
worst kitchens from which the middle classes have escaped. The debate
rages, and when a new government comes into power, under agitation
from the Nutrition pressure groups, the market reforms are curtailed.

Let's leave this parable and return to Michael Barber's point, and
consider the 'more authentic' market as we know it in Nutrition, or,
as we call it, food. Parents can choose in what ways they wish their
children to be fed. They purchase food using their own money, and the
myriad of these individual choices have an influence on the final
price of the food, giving information to suppliers to act according
to demand. They can choose uncooked, cooked, or partly cooked food.
They choose from an incredible diversity of suppliers, from
traditional markets, supermarkets, hypermarkets, late stores, corner
shops and wholesalers. Some grow food for themselves. Some eat out
for certain meals at restaurants or fast-food stores, or order
take-away food. Some eat with friends or extended family. The
government is not involved in the funding or provision at all. There
is some state intervention in this market for sure. The food
suppliers need to conform to safety and informational requirements.
Moreover, there are two 'safety nets' to ensure that children don't
suffer. If parents are neglectful, there are mechanisms to ensure
children are cared for properly. For poor parents, there are money
handouts to ensure their children eat properly. These mechanisms, if
working properly, enhance but don't undermine the market.

I hope I have written enough to bring out the stark contrast between
an authentic market and the 'so-called' one. The tiny aspects of
markets which were introduced in the parable are largely
insignificant, and indeed, as the critics pointed out, may even
exacerbate the unfairness of the previous system. The moral of this
parable is, I hope, that tinkering with heavy state intervention does
not bring about a market, even if the tinkering is introducing some
vaguely market-like mechanisms. All we have in education is this
tentative tinkering; the so-called market is as different from a more
authentic market as the reformed Nutrition System is from the market
in food.

Or finally, perhaps another analogy will help. Suppose that a new
'choice' reform is introduced into a prison system. Prisoners are now
allowed a choice of food within the prison canteen. Prisoners have to
go to the one prison canteen of course, and have to eat at the set
mealtimes, but nonetheless they have a choice of food when they get
there. Would anyone want to say that such choice is the same as real
freedom? Of course not. It is the same in the education system. The
choice systems in education are as far removed from real markets as
real freedom is from the prisoner.

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