A Surfeit of reform – the mess that is the British Education System

My understanding of economics is derived from scepticism, the philosophy of Sextus Empiricus and Nietzsche when at his most lucid. The sceptic knows that nothing is true that there is no certainty in human knowledge. What ever the answer posed to a problem at the best it is but a partial answer. Sextus Empiricus was sceptical of human knowledge that he thought it best society continue in the same old tested and proven ways, as given the limitations of human knowledge any reforms proposed by the philosophers would inevitably worsen the human condition. This is illustrated by the probable apophrical story about Plato. Dion the tyrant of Syracuse invited the philosopher Plato to advise on improving Syracuse  society. His reforms proved to be totally impractical and caused nothing but discontent among the people so much so  that an angry Dion ending up selling Plato into slavery. However I would not go as far in my scepticism as Sextus as society is constantly changing and keeping things in the time honoured way is impossible. However a sceptic such as myself knows that all the grand theories of economics are untrue, they only contain at the best only partial truths.

Siracusa-sicily-italy

Syracuse, Sicily

Economists have observed that if a good is in short supply its price rises so encourages producers to produce more in the expectation of increasing their income. This is an indisputable truth but the free market theorists develop this further claiming that changes in price  will cause the market to move into an equilibrium where supply equals demand. It is this last statement that as a sceptic I would contest. There is no evidence that markets ever move into a state of equilibrium, as demonstrated by the housing market where demand has exceeded supply for decades. All that can be said is that market theory which states that price is the means through which supply and demand are brought into equilibrium is unproven.

There is one good example of the Plato school of economics in action and that is the mess that is the British education system. Concern was expressed in our governing circles about the poor quality of the British schooling system in the 1980s. A model for reform was found in public choice theory which is the application of market principles to public services. The local covered market in my city in which there are competing fruit and vegetable stall holders is a good example to explain the purposes of the reform. If one stall holder in the market sells produce that is of a poor quality or too high a price, they will lose sales to their rivals. Consequently competition between stallholders ensures that only good quality produce is sold at he lowest prices. Reforming politicians decided that the system that worked so well in the market would work well if introduced into the provision of public services. All that had to be done was to convert schools into the equivalent of competing fruit and vegetable store holders. Legislation was passed to achieve this and now there are a variety of competing state schools, academies, technical colleges and free schools to name but a few.

However this new market system of education has one huge flaw. There is no central co-ordinating authority to ensure that supply of school places matches the demand for school places. The problem that arises is that it is impossible to organise all these independent competing school to provide the number of school places needed. All the government can do is to encourage or cajole these competing schools into providing the required number of school places. However each school is responsible for its own finances and is not invest in providing the facilities for extra students unless they can be sure the places will be filled. They will respond after the event when there are a surplus of children unable to get into schools, once it is obvious that there is a need for places the school will respond. However there is one other caveat it takes time to create additional school places, it will require investment in buildings and new teaching staff and the consequence is that there will always be a time lag between demand for school places and the provision of those places. Leaving school provision to a market comprising several independent competing schools only ensures that demand will never match supply, so the provision of schooling for each child takes second place to preserving the integrity of the market, though a policy of non interference.

What I would say as a sceptical economist is that what is a proven truth in one sector of the economy cannot be easily or effectively transposed into another different sector, which may effectively run better on different principles. The free market principle of herding cats is not the best principle on which to organise the provision of school places and schooling in general.

Unfortunately the belief in the beneficial effects of the free market is so deeply imbedded in the political culture of the country that even the free market reforms produce some obviously dysfunctional results they are ignored.

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