While Rome burns ....

"Widely thought to be failing students and contributing to the nation's high levels of crime and  unemployment, schools had become smothered by a large and inefficient bureaucracy. Decision makers were removed from the consequences of their choices. Teachers - whose pay was divorced completely from performance - rationally made decisions in their own best interests, rather than those of their pupils." 

The UK today? While it might well be a description of contemporary British state education, the exert actually describes mid 1980's New Zealand. Education policy had got so rotten in the country - notes the Mercatus Centre report - that by 1986 a third of all New Zealand children left school with no diploma or qualification. A centralised bureaucracy consumed seven out of every ten dollars spent on education, and the central Department for Education had become so monolithic and intrusive that it even determined how many scissors were allowed in each school.

Last year 98.6 per cent of English children left school with at least one qualification. Total spending on the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) - so excluding higher education - was £60 billion last year, with schools seeing over half of that. Despite a love of centralised planning, DCSF does not yet decide how many scissors should be allowed in England's schools. How then can we compare the situation in 1980's New Zealand with modern Britain?

At one level the answer lies in looking past the headline statistics. 98.6 per cent of English children may leave school with a qualification, but that only means a child has obtained a single GSCE or equivalent - potentially at a C grade - so it's not a meaningful guide to the health of English education. In 2008 only 52 per cent of pupils attained level 2 in functional English and maths (see DCSF stats); 28 per cent of 7-11 year olds are considered below 'average'.

Universities are increasingly vocal in their disregard for new A-level subjects (such as media studies, whose introduction into the curriculum has helped give the impression of overall educational improvement), and increasingly open in their preference for 'real' subjects (maths, history). Business now frequently laments the general quality of candidates coming out of English schools; while qualified on paper, bosses find too many new employees functionally illiterate and innumerate. Add to all this the admission by exam boards that exams are getting easier to pass (which is distinguishable from easier per se), and the regulators recent admission that it cannot ensure that standards are being maintained, who can doubt that there are serious problems with English state education. Many do though, wilfully ignoring all the evidence, and thus allowing DCSF to fiddle while Rome burns down around it.

Conceding there is a problem, and admitting that that problem has something to do with the way education is provided as much as the 'social and economic' background of children, is not an abandonment or criticism of teachers. The vast majority of teachers are excellent, dedicated public servants who do extraordinary work. Nor is admitting there is problem equivalent to "wanting to scrap state education". The current system is not the only way taxpayer funded education can be organised. Too few are ready to admit that.





In New Zealand the Government had conceded by the mid-1980's that bureaucratic reforms had not worked. In a bold, progressive move, the Labour government brought in market orientated reformers to redesign the management structure for schools. Over the next decade state education was systematically turned - with occasional steps backwards - towards a more teacher / pupil lead system, with far greater independence for schools. The intention was never to privatise New Zealand's schools, but rather to arrest a growing number of problems. Compromises had to be made along the way, and some reforms were later undone.

But the moves away from government control has, without question, improved state education in New Zealand. Parents now have school choice, and the system gets high approval ratings. By 1989 the number of pupils leaving school without a quailification had fallen below 17 per cent (from 30 per cent before 1986). Unlike England, New Zealand now climbs up international rankings, outperforming OECD averages on all metrics.  The current New Zealand system is not perfect, and arguably more
radical reform (such as those originally intended) would have delivered
better outcomes. The important thing though is that New Zealand admitted that there was a problem, and it conceeded that it could not be fixed by government bureacratic fiddles. The answer lay in school freedom, parental choice, less government control and increased competition. In England we face similiar problems to New Zealand's; we would be wise to take note of what they did to fix them. 

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