RECENTLY, I WROTE here of how British science is in total in 2nd place in the world behind the USA & per capita far ahead of them. And of how Scotland holds the same relation with Britain. But if our trend of declining education standards continues this is bound to pass.
Scotland used to have the world's best education system. Say what you like of John Knox but the Reformation led to almost every Scottish household having a book when this was unique in the world. The Scots "lad o' pairts", taught by local schoolmasters ran London and the British Empire. It was this education system that allowed us to take full advantage of the union with England.
Unfortunately, probably for the first time since the 12thC (when Scotland had 4 Universities and England 2), our educational results are below those of England.
Scottish pupils fall behind English counterparts... despite costing £1,400 more per student
That was in 2009 - so probably about 15% more now. That figure is an oversimplification the difference between Scotland and England since the difference between individual schools is far greater. For example Tower Hamlets at £8,058 is the most expensive, being considerably more expensive than the average Scots school - and tending to support the feeling that spending has little relationship to quality of education provided.
So what to do. Well I will rely heavily here on Jerry Pournelle who has had a lifetime of serious interest in the subject. Dr Pournelle is an American technology expert who, among many other things, may have won the cold war by persuading Reagan not to give way to the USSR over SDI. His opinions do not fit well with the politically correct "consensus" among our main parties but he does tend to have the backing of the facts.
"It’s pretty well accepted among those who study education that schools can be fixed – or at least doubled in effectiveness – by the simple expedient of firing the 10% least competent teachers and not replacing them. Just allocate their students to the other teachers. As to who are the 10% least competent, you will find by and large that everyone knows who they are."
Most Scottish political debate is on which party is most committed to reducing class sizes. This is code for employing more teachers even as school rolls fall. However, below class sizes approaching 50 there is no real evidence that size has a serious influence on outcomes. What does is having good teachers.
What small class sizes really do is provide more government jobs and more members for the teaching unions. If the purpose of government education programmes is to pay teachers and the actual education is secondary at best it is easy to explain how Scots politicians currently run education. If class size is secondary in importance to teaching quality it is difficult to see how any politician who sincerely cared about education, could make class sizes the matter of prime importance.
Parental choice voucher system
"As has been shown by Professor Milton Friedman (M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955), it would now be entirely practicable to defray the costs of general education out of the public purse without maintaining government schools, by giving the parents vouchers covering the cost of education of each child which they could hand over to schools of their choice. It may still be desirable that government directly provide schools in a few isolated communities where the number of children is too small (and the average cost of education therefore too high) for privately run schools. But with respect to the great majority of the population, it would undoubtedly be possible to leave the organisation and management of education entirely to private efforts, with the government providing merely the basic finance and ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where the vouchers could be spent." (F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, section 24.3)
That was written in 1955. 1955 is some time ago & at least since the 1980s politicians have been speaking in favour of vouchers. Perhaps it is time to actually do something.
This very interesting study of what political policies correlate with economic success said that they did not find a positive correlation between growth and educational spending, somewhat to their surprise. However there was such a correlation with adult male educational spending, which I assume goes overwhelmingly to motivated people wanting to improve their career prospects.
I don't automatically take it from that that there is not a close link between educational achievement and growth. That would still surprise me. Instead I think there is not a close link between the amount government spends on education and the quality of education delivered.
In any case putting more effort and money into the adult field and having the teaching not done by professional teachers but by professionals, possibly retired professionals, in the fields being taught. Pournelle has, on occasion, mentioned that army sergeants have consistently managed to teach even the basics to recruits whom the "professionals" had failed to teach.
I am not entirely comfortable with this since it will tend to widen inequality but the logic is inescapable. Pournelle again
"The only way that education comes close to being an investment in the future is if it makes the public school graduates more productive citizens. It is not politically correct to notice that this really means that you ought to concentrate on the smartest students; there is little return on investment put into the disabled, feebleminded, and those with behavior problems that doom them to being unproductive. National wealth depends on production and productivity, not on getting a dull normal child to get a ‘passing grade’. Yes, half the children are below average, and they cannot be ignored; but adding a few points to the SAT score of a child with IQ 89 is unlikely ever to have a payoff equal to the cost of the education. You aren’t suppose to say this, but nearly everyone knows it.
Improving Isaac Newton's IQ by 10 points will do a lot more for humanity than doing the same for Forrest Gump. This is what Scots pride in the "lad o' pairts" was all about - getting the best out of those who had the most potential.
So the way to solve this is to pay more for good results. I am not calling for less money to be spent on education, quite possibly the opposite, so long as it is spent providing the promised results. We can have about £1600 per pupil (including 15% increase since 2009) if we keep basic spending down to the UK level or 10% of teacher's salaries, if we make that 10% cut, or both, to invest.
Lets put that into prizes. Institute graded prizes for those getting above current average results, particularly in the real sciences. If the average pupil in the top 50% got £600 a year for passing exams, the teacher got £500 and the school got £500 I think we would see some pretty spectacular motivation. among all 3.
Prizes do work. Sometimes as much as 33-100 times better than conventional funding.
I'll be old fashioned and say that indiscipline in classrooms is a horrible thing to impose on the majority of pupils who actually want to learn. The belt used to work but it is politically unallowable now and probably legally so as along as we are under the EU. That is a can of worms that it would be out of place to discuss in this article. Lets just say that individual schools can decide what they want to do - exclusions or whatever. Since I am suggesting that significant prizes should be given to the schools themselves they will clearly have incentive enough to deal with the problem.
The only problem would be that if our education system improved as much as I think it would (with great care being taken to prevent the "rampant grade inflation" it is now acknowledged we have seen) we would have to pay quite a lot more, quite possibly another £1,600 per pupil.
That is a problem I would be happy to see. The problem with schools is not that we are paying to much for them but that, currently, we are getting to little.