Monday, 31 December 2018

Do private schools increase competition?

Somebody at a political discussion meeting made a throwaway remark that he thought grammar schools/private schools were A Good Thing because they "increase competition".

Ho hum. At the school level, of course they do. There is no doubt in my mind that children who attend private schools get better academic results than if they'd attended state schools, which is hardly surprising, but I'm not sure that's relevant. Let's assume that state schools see themselves as competing with private schools, so maybe at the margin, they up their game slightly, again, A Good Thing.

But the point of secondary education is to equip children for a life of work and/or give them the best chance of getting a university place, which in turn is to help children end up in the best possible job. Education (beyond a certain basic level) is not really an end in itself - consider a family with children who are planning to move abroad in a few years, there is no point in the taxpayer paying for the children's education as they will not see any benefit.

Beyond a certain level, this is just an arms race. If every child were 10% better educated, then that would just mean that most of them end up in jobs for which they are 10% over-qualified i.e. from the point of view of an individual child, you want the best education you can get, taking society as a whole it would be a waste of resources.

"Competition" can mean different things:

i. If Producer A does his best to supply goods and services which are better/cheaper/whatever than Producer B, that is good for the economy, because Producer B then has to play catch up and overall standards increase. That's a clear win. Key to this is that consumers (or potential employees) have full knowledge about the goods and services (or working conditions) and can make fair comparisons (which they clearly don't).

ii. If Producers A and B have innovated and improved as much as they can, they "compete" by spending more money on advertising (providing misinformation or irrelevant facts) and trying to lock each other out by fair means or foul. That is a waste of resources and a loss.

iii. There are some competitions that are just competitions for the sake of competition, like athletics. How does society benefit if an Olympic runner sets a new world record a couple of milliseconds quicker or a few inches higher/further? Answer: not at all, at best it has a short-lived entertainment value. This is a humungous waste of resources. Compare this with films or music - that is also pure entertainment value, but people can enjoy the same films or songs for decades after they were released. Who sits down and re-watches the Olympics of a few years ago, or a horse race that was on last week? I guess nobody.

To return to the theme of private schools, you can give your child an advantage in later life by sending them there. Does that increase 'competition' in the positive sense mentioned at i. above? No, it just means that some other child is at a slight relative disadvantage for no particular reason, which is like the bad competition at ii.

To tie this in with iii., if real life were a closed system liked athletics, private school children have a one second advantage when qualifying for the Olympic running team, so they are more likely to get in. Does that mean the Olympic running team will be any better when it gets to the Olympics? Probably not, it just means that the private school kids starting training earlier, they still have a couple of years further training before the Olympics, by which time the state school kids with a one-second handicap would have caught up anyway.

Here endeth today's rant.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it is not as simple as people think. Going to the other extreme and banning private schools might just make things worse, as there'd be nothing for state schools to compete with, so standards might slip for everybody.

Maybe the least bad system is bottom-up privatisation of state education i.e. giving parents 'education vouchers' and letting them choose which school to 'spend' them at? But if parents can 'spend' the vouchers at private schools and pay top up fees, that just compounds the original problem, so it's not as simple as that either.


Sackerson said...

My brother says, and I agree with him, that grammar schools are a good idea because swots are less likely to get bullied. And are likely to work harder, rather than coast so as to have more time mixing with the cool crowd.

Mark Wadsworth said...

S, for sure. Within the state system, it makes sense to have selection, streaming and setting. You learn most if you are in a class with people of similar ability. As long as children all have the same chance of getting selected, streamed or setted - there's a separate hidden arms race called 'private tuition'.

Mark In Mayenne said...

The underlying premise of your poSt is that private schools are better than state schools. This is true and is the root of the problem.

Edward Spalton said...

Two experiences of mine, concerning competition between schools.-

I went to Ashby de la Zouch Boys’ Grammar School in the Fifties.
Leicestershire was the first county, I believe, to go comprehensive.
It was called The Mason Plan, after the then Director of Education,
two of whose sons boarded at the school.

One aspect of the motivation for the change appeared in the local paper
in the opinion of the Labour leader of the Urban District Council.
“ Good working class lads go to grammar school, get good jobs and
vote Tory. We’re going to put a stop to that”.

Our teachers were outraged. I am as sure as I can be that many of them voted Labour
(Some from the local coalfield were themselves old boys) and they were in the
business of opportunity. Whilst they would always encourage us to discuss political
matters, we never knew their own opinions - but this disclosure really outraged them.

Years later, I was briefly a coopted governor of the inner city infants’ school which our
children had attended a few years before and was summoned to a large meeting of
governors and teachers convened by the Labour LEA to oppose the creation of a
City Technology College which would be outside the party’s control. I made the point
about competition ( the sole dissenting voice) - that Sainsbury and Tesco were only as
good as they were because of the sharpening effect of competition. This was a horrid
heresy to those present.

A year or two later I met the new head of the CTC. He had been in charge of a bog
standard, under-subscribed Comprehensive which he has improved until it was over-
Subscribed. Initially the local LEA had been supportive but, as he began to overhaul
other schools, he had come under pressure to “ slow down to let the others catch up”
so he had seen the CTC as an opportunity to break out of that anti-achievement ethos.

Mark Wadsworth said...

S, I ought to re-phrase my reply to you - selection, streaming and setting lead to the best outcomes in any sort of education or training system, whether state, private or otherwise.

Putting selection (by ability/connection/parents' income) to one side, setting and streaming is probably a large part of the reason why private schools do so well academically (as well as de-selecting less able candidates after GSCE results).

MIM, of course they are better (for what they charge they bloody well should be). I'm just not entirely convinced that they are best for society as a whole (and they are dreadful for parents' bank balances, I am one such parent).

Ed, thanks, that is all awfully depressing but hardly surprising.

Ben Jamin' said...

"There is no doubt in my mind that children who attend private schools get better academic results than if they'd attended state schools"

Mostly all in the DNA.

Better networking opportunities is perhaps the best reason for private education.

Bayard said...

I don't know how the state education system is funded, but if it was funded like the private system, i.e. so much per year per pupil, then, yes the private and public sectors would be in competition, otherwise not.

IMHO, we should have a state education system that is good enough that only a tiny minority want to send their children to a private school, as is the case, I believe in France and Germany. My education was private from age eight and I know for a fact that it would have been public, at least until age thirteen, if the local state schools had not had such a poor reputation. The inability of politicians at all levels to resist playing politics with education (as nicely illustrated by ES above) is, AFAICS, the main reason why state education is so poor in the UK and hence the private sector so large.

pen seive said...

I suppose one way of improving the education system is to stop politicians forcing parents to send their children to failing local comprehensive, while sending their own children to non-failing schools some distance away (Harman and Blair spring to mind, while Diane Abbopotamus defended her decision to do so by stating that "Carribean mothers look after their children", thereby making the somewhat racist suggestion that non-Carribean mothers don't).
If politician's children were made to go to the nearby Grot Street Academy instead of some fancy school on the other side of town, then I would suggest it wouldn't be too long before Ofsted ratings improved.

Mark Wadsworth said...

BJ, also probably true. Which makes the whole 'private' thing even more depressing and pointless.

B, agreed on Germany. Private education is only for kids a) with rich parents who b) can't hack it at a normal state school. It's not a badge of pride.

PS, I agree with all of that. It's unenforceable of course, but at least the public should be made aware where local candidates send their kids to school.

A candidate sends their kids to the local comprehensive school? Vote for them, they've got skin in the game! Abbopotamus' MP salary is enough for her to send her kids somewhere fancy? Why would you vote for her?

Lola said...

Mrs Lola's experience as a teacher (now retired) in the state sector is that over her teaching career state schools were turned from places of education to state indoctrination centres.
It's not so much 'competition' per se it's that you cannot trust government with it. If you do it always ends up as indoctrination not education (as I understand the term).
Personally I benefited hugely from my Grammar School classical liberal education. Conversely I had to expend a lot of energy on my children compensating from their 'indoctrination' in the late 1980's to early 2000's state system.
And I think de-nationalising all of it and providing vouchers (if you really want to - I don't) is the least worst option. And you'd likely get real local competition.

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, if not vouchers, then what's the answer?

Lola said...

MW. Nothing. I am confident that 'markets' will sort it out. Look at history, there has always been schooling of some form and its general availability increased as we all got richer as capitalism got going. Sure you're going to get recidivism and parental neglect - we get that now and the state education system has not really sorted it.

mombers said...

I think that taking choice/competition out of the state school system is a good idea. People (myself very much included) game the system to get a 'better' (usually just more exclusive) school for their children than others. This is not a fair or sensible way to spend public money and leads to crap outcomes like sink schools and gaming of meaningless league tables.

Better to have a school assigned to you, and within that school you can have sets/streaming. The disruptive/less able kids can be put in sets tailored to their abilities and needs. Every school will have a decent amount of clever kids who can be seen as a role model for some, rather than having a sink school where the few able kids who get dumped in there are pressurised not to be academically successful

Lola said...


Para 1 - Yes

Para 2 - Nooooooooo!. You can bet your bottom Dollar that YOU will be assigned crap schools by the 'state assignment bureaucrats' whereas they will assign themselves all the 'good' ones. And the rest of it is reminscent of bussing to ensure 'equality'. It just won't work.

Edward Spalton said...


Your posts reminded me of this incident of years ago. The local doctor (who later became a lifelong friend) sent his youngest son to the village primary school and was assigned to a class with an incompetent teacher.

Complaints had been made about this man before and the school and Education Authority went through the motions of investigating and always decided "best educational practice" was being followed.

The doctor and headmaster chanced to meet at a vicarage garden party and words were exchanged.
The doctor said the man was obviously not up to his job and - after a couple of drinks - the headmaster said that the only possible way he could replace him was by giving a favourable reference for a promoted position.

The doctor persisted with his complaint with the usual non-result. The headmaster then decided that, as the enquiry had established that "best educational practice" was being followed, the problem must lie with the doctor's son and set in motion the procedure for having him assessed as what is now called "special needs" (I think it was then the more blunt phrase "educationally sub normal").

Upon this, the doctor took his son out of the school and had him educated privately ( which was what, I guess, the head intended). The son went on to get two good degrees in hard scientific subjects.

It's all long ago now and both the doctor and head are dead. They were both actually good men in their ways but the head understood the limitations of the system within which he worked. I still get a Christmas card from the son.

Mark Wadsworth said...

M, I'm not sure I'd go that far. The key is to eliminate gaming by parents, while at the same time encouraging healthy competition between schools. I'm not sure that those two are compatible.

L, 2 is the big problem, isn't it?

Ed, that story is even more heart breaking than your earlier examples.

Bayard said...

ES, incompetence is not a problem that is confined to the public sector. At the private, fee-paying school I attended, there were several incompetent teachers. I had the misfortune of being "taught" by one of them, with a corresponding effect on my A level result. I am not sure if any parents complained, but certainly nothing was ever done, nor do I remember any boys being sent to another school, which one would expect if any parents had been like your doctor friend.

Bayard said...

Mombers, your second para reminds me of a debate I remember from my own schooldays, which set gets the better teacher? Is it the "A" set, so that the better teacher can draw the better pupils out further, or is it the "B" set so that the better teacher can help the slower pupils catch up?

Lola said...

All. Yes, as to bad teachers in all schools. Mrs L has had to endure and cover for a number of appalling colleagues in her career - all state sector.

In my 1960's Grammar School days we had a couple of real wastes of oxygen as teachers. The music bloke was just plain idle. One (of thr two) geography masters was simply sadistic. OTH we had an excellent maths bloke who was a Georgian refugee (or 'displaced person' in the jargon of the time). Overall, the ethic of the school trumped the bad teachers - the pupils would compensate by their own efforts or (as in my case with music) having no talent whatsoever for the subject do ones homework for another subject in that class. That has led me to think that good schools are more important than individual bad teachers.

Edward Spalton said...

I had not expected to do so but eventually I impoverished myself by educating our two children privately at prep and public school. On the whole we had a pretty good bargain - but I could probably have got much the same effect by moving to the catchment area of one of the better state schools - and had a great addition to the value of my house!

We only came across one incompetent teacher who was ruthlessly spotted by the children themselves. This was at the Public School level. He must obviously have had good academic qualifications but was, as they said "gripless". He only lasted a year.

In those days the school posted all the class positions on the noticeboard and it was obvious that this man's pupils were underperforming. Scholarship pupils were going down a stream!

Then I remembered something similar - but with a happier later outcome - from my grammar school days.
We had a new chemistry teacher who, we were told, had come into teaching from a highly paid job in industry. At the start he was not a classroom performer and knew it. He went a funny grey sort of colour and looked like a man mounting the scaffold when he came into the class room. Some of the more unruly boys took advantage. A few had painful interviews with the headmaster. The other teachers closed ranks and obviously encouraged him.

He had an unusual name and years later, looking at my son's chemistry textbook, I saw that this teacher was the author and he had progressed to being head of chemistry at Eton!

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, I got a free place at a fee-paying grammar school, on the whole the teachers were good, apart from Illingwoth (maths) who sucked all the joy out of the subject (and was a bit of a humourless twar generally) and the wierdo little English whose name happily escapes me.

B, streaming and setting achieves both. Clever kids learn more in a class with clever kids, average kids learn more in a class with average kids.

Ed, as to private school fees, Her Indoors decided to send ours private and all in all it is a waste of money, the extra I earn from having had a slightly better education all gets spent on making sure our kids get a slightly better education and thus better paying jobs which mean they can send their kids private etc etc. Extra disposable net income from this merry go round zero or even negative.