Competition and Choice

From Bath, England, Keith Hudson’s Daily Wisdom mailings are a source of endless delight and surprise. Wide ranging and eclectic, Keith’s musings are edifying to say the least. Here, for the record, is today’s bit which focuses on a topic close to my heart–education.

In 1979 a sudden wave of unemployment hit Coventry school-leavers and prompted me to start Jobs for Coventry Foundation in order to give training to some of these youngsters. This was at the beginning of a problem which has affected the British economy for almost 30 years since then and which is only just being corrected by immigration — particularly the recent surge of 300,000 young Polish workers with the skills and, just as importantly, the motivation to work.

In the 1960s the government ran a very successful training organisation called Skill Centres under the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) which repeated something which the Army had discovered during the war years. This is that you can teach skills very quickly if you set your mind to it. Thus, in short six month training sessions, thousands of trainees every year learned skills such as milling, cutter-grinding, electrical work, plumbing, carpentry and building work and so on.

Skill Centres were brought to an end when the MSC discovered that, although the they were good at training, they were not very good at forecasting just what skills were actually needed. As the ’70s came the MSC could only successfully extrapolate skill shortages two or three years ahead. On top of that, the bulk of their end-users, the industrial firms, were rationalising or closing down fast, computerisation was coming in and the job market was changing in all sorts of mysterious ways.

But by closing down the Skill Centres the government threw out the baby with the bathwater and the civil service mandarins became infected with a quite new philosophy of education and training. This was that because it was difficult to forecast just what skills would be needed in the future, then the state secondary schools needn’t teach specific skills but “versatility” instead — without needing to worry about teaching basic skills such as maths or manual dexterity.

If anything, the scorn poured on manual skills by the middle-class educational establishment was even more serious than the lack of maths. Educationalists had still not learned from the neuroscientists that a disproportionately large part of the cortex was occupied by manual control and was thus importantly involved in overall intelligence or from sociological research that the children of skilled manual workers tendeed to be more intelligent than the average.

Nor did educationalists notice another phenomenon taking place before their eyes. Computerisation was coming in apace and software was being being led by youngsters who hadn’t even reached the sixth form at school and certainly long before university age. It took another 10-15 years before secondary schools and universities started putting computer subjects in their agendas.

What should this have taught educationalists? The same as the pre-1979 employment scene should have taught them. In those days parents were the chief agents in placing young people in work — in their own factories and many other places of work — because they were in touch with the real economy. Increasingly, the state education system was becoming isolated. Attempts at correcting this huge mistake are only just now being made with the launch of City Academies but the first results of these are not encouraging.

If we do some simple maths and multiply the 12 years spent at school by a factor of 3 to account for the length of the average working life, then the 7% of the children educated at private fee-paid schools comes to something like the 30% of the working population with the most interesting and important jobs — whether in the sciences, arts, media or financial services, etc — and the cause of the yawning income gap which is now occurring in most developed countries. We may also note in passing the curious phenomenon — until the Poles arrived! — that some of these privileged people were actually going “downstream” as it were by learning skills such such as plumbing and so forth because these niche skills were in desperately short supply and thus highly paid.

In adjusting to a new skill-world in which automation and massive Chinese imports continue to take traditional jobs away we need competition between schools and more choice by parents. Why should parents be trusted in buying better quality goods and services by means of competition but not in exercising more choice in schools? The educational establishment is gradually waking up to the need for more choice within the state system but this needs to be accelerated by bringing education vouchers into being and thus bringing parents into the process. There is nothing more inevitable than education vouchers but it’s about time that they were brought in before we are overwhelmed with youngsters with no future except crime and state benefits.

Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. Not sure if you are aware you have been quoted quite a lot in the daily reckoning newsletter in the past couple of days


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