British Educational Standards Declining

If Britain’s government is to reverse a trend of stagnating student performance, Nick Ottens proposes that it consider privatizing schools.

Educational standards in the United Kingdom are on the decline. In mathematics, reading and science, British students have been overtaken by their counterparts in Norway and Poland in recent years. Schools in East Asia, including Korea and Shanghai, are far superior to those in much of Europe.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, which every three years evaluates education quality in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, British pupils have dropped in all categories compared to the survey conducted in 2006. Britain performs at about average in reading and math for developed countries. It is only slightly above average in science.

The findings prove that the huge increases in education spending that occurred under the previous government have had limited effect, if any. Education accounted for some 17 percent of public spending last year, or an average of €64,500 per student. Countries as Germany and Hungary, which have similar ratings in student performance, spent tens of thousands of euros less. Only seven countries in the OECD actually spend more per student than Britain does.

Reform of British education is nothing short of a necessity therefore and the coalition government should consider freeing children from government schools in order to boost quality.

Conservatives championed freer schools before the election this summer, arguing for instance that universities should be allowed to set their own quality standards. The party is in favor of reforming national pay rules in order to let schools reward excellent teachers financially. Firing bad teachers, which in many countries is hampered by heavy union regulations, would further compel educators to constantly improve themselves as is the norm in the private sector.

Based on the existence of charter schools in the United States and similar experiments in Scandinavia, the government is also contemplating Free Schools, which could be set up by parents, teachers or even companies and operate independently of local authorities. Such Free Schools would receive government funding however.

Charter schools in the United States have been successful in the sense that they far outperform public schools. They mirror the freedom characteristic of private schools but are in fact no substitute for them. By effectively destroying private schools, they erode the total range of educational options and undermine the competition that is essential to improving quality.

Free Schools in the United Kingdom would similarly by constrained by not being allowed to turn a profit. The notion that education is a right not something that should be paid for still pervades, even among conservatives in Britain who realize that public schooling has been a failure.

Introducing competition and profit in education would expand parents’ choice, increase teachers’ ability to deviate from centrally planned programs and improve student performance as a consequence. If Britain is to prepare its workforce for the twenty-first century while cutting back on government spending at the same time, privatizing schools is the only option that makes sense.