Against equality of opportunity

11:06 am - November 8th 2007

by Chris Dillow    

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The left, if the word means anything at all, is about equality. But what type of equality? This is, of course, a huge question; for serious thinking on the subject, look at the Equality Exchange. I just want to make a quick point – that the left should give less priority to equality of opportunity.

Start from a fact. In 2006, pupils eligible for free school meals were roughly only half as likely to get five good GCSEs as richer pupils; 28.7% vs 56.2% for boys and 37.4% vs 66% for girls (table 7 here). Poverty, then, still leads to poor educational attainment even after nine years of New Labour government.

This is not for want of trying. Specialist schools, greater choice and the Excellence in Cities programme have helped (pdf) narrow the gap. It’s just that progress has been slow.

And there’s no reason to hope that greater spending on poorer pupils will eliminate the gap. The recent report (pdf) from the Primary Review showing that the £500m spent on the National Literary Strategy had “almost no impact” on standards highlights a worldwide finding (pdf) – that spending on education does little to improve standards. For this reason, US research suggests that it would require enormous differences in spending on pupils to achieve true Roemerian equality of opportunity.

So, I reckon the Left should face the fact – that education cannot achieve equality of opportunity. The disadvantages of being born to poor parents are so great that the state cannot feasibly remove them. Of course, it could try achieving equality by levelling down the advantages of having rich parents, for example by banning private education and tuition and good parenting generally. But these options are hard to reconcile with liberalism.

Now, you might reply here that it’s not necessary to achieve true equality of opportunity. The Left should satisfy itself with improving opportunities for poor kids.

This is not good enough. Indeed, in one sense, partial equality of opportunity is worse than useless. It’s a cruel hoax. To pretend that the poor have opportunities when in truth they have many fewer than the rich merely helps legitimate inequality. It invites the poor to blame themselves for their plight, and the rich to congratulate themselves on deserving their fortune. Such attitudes, as Michael Young pointed out 50 years ago, are bad enough if rooted in fact. But they are intolerable if they are not.

This is not to say we shouldn’t worry about education. We should, but for reasons other than equality.

Instead, rather than try to offset the disadvantages of being born poor through the education system, the left should focus more reducing those disadvantages in later life.

One thing I have in mind here is a form of Dworkinian insurance. There should be redistributive taxes that replicate the insurance payments people would agree to behind what Rawls called a veil of ignorance. If people didn’t know what family they would be born into, they would probably agree to insurance contracts, in which those born to rich families – or with high skills – would pay out to those born to poor families.

In other words, the left should focus more upon (partial) equality of outcome, and less upon pursuing the illusion of equality of opportunity.

You might say this is what New Labour does with its tax credits. Not entirely. One of its big failures is to focus upon poor families, giving insufficient redistribution to single people, even though singleness is a source of unhappiness which might justify redistribution.

You might also say it’s unrealistic to push for greater redistribution. This is bull. It’s about time the left distinguished between two senses of “unrealistic”. Some policies are unrealistic because they are technically unattainable; this is true of equality of opportunity, among other things. Other policies are unrealistic only in the sense that the Daily Mail wouldn’t like them. Here, though, there’s a simple solution – grow a backbone.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments

Chris – what overall level of taxation and what marginal tax rates, and at what thresholds, do you have in mind?

As you have argued on your own blog, there is a limit to the tax you can raise from the rich alone…therefore you need to shrink the size of the state.

Link here

I don’t see a need at this stage to prescribe precise tax rates, but merely to invite people to do the thought experiment about pre-birth insurance.
My hunch (there’s remarkably little hard evidence here!) is that higher top tax rates would do little economic damage. The reason we can’t raise very much revenue from the rich is not that they’d stop working or go overseas, but simply because they aren’t rich or numerous enough.
Of course, we could redistribute more to the poor if we cut state spending on corporate welfare. But that’s trivial.

“Poverty, then, still leads to poor educational attainment”

Correlation does not equal causation.

2/10, must try harder.

I don’t know whether higher top rates would do damage, but at some level evasion would soar, wouldn’t it? Or would this be – as you suggest given that the numbers of the rich are small – essentially a tax on the middle class?
Of course yours is essentially an appeal to altruism.
I buy fire insurance on my house because I don’t know whether it will burn down.
But would I be prepared to buy insurance against not owning a nice house given that I am in fact lucky enough to own one??!

I am familiar with Rawls’s argument, but find it difficult to conduct the thought experiment without knowing (broadly) what extra amounts might be involved!!

Once we have accepted the thesis that education is not a level playing field can we get the liberal left to agree that selection is not a demon consigning children that do not pass to a bad future but an invaluable leg up to children of all financial backgrounds that have that academic ability.
It is also not a barrier to improving the education available to the rest of the population nor is it responsible for creating an underclass.
Can anyone honestly say that 1976 Education Act has prevented a increase in the numbers of the young people that education is failing?
To declare an interest, I was at times on free school meals while I attended a grammar school.

To me, equality of opportunity is a bit like being good. You can’t really achieve it, but you have to try.

“…selection is not a demon consigning children that do not pass to a bad future but an invaluable leg up to children of all financial backgrounds that have that academic ability”

A genuine challenge for you, Tony.

There are lots of academic reviews of selective education in NI, England and Sweden.

Can you find one which supports this statement?

I started off where you are now, but on reading the research, I’ve been consistently amazed at how little basis it has.

Ian – I used the phrase “leads to” rather than “causes” precisely because I didn’t want to say there’s causality.
x can lead to y without causality. The sending of Christmas cards does not cause Christmas.

“Poverty, then, still leads to poor educational attainment even after nine years of New Labour government.”

Other way round, poor educational attainment leads to poverty.
You will find that the majority of recipients of free school meals (if you accept free education & food as indicators of “poverty”) have parents whose educational aceivments were minimal.

10. LiberalHammer

Think that Matt Munro is correct. If good educational attainment is the window to a wider world then the converse must be true. Crudely poor grades = poor job. And poor grades may indicate loathing of the school system, which can be passed down to the children in turn. I know of parents who simply don’t care about their children’s education.

Yes. Which is why parental expectation (high in the middle classes, progressively lower as you go down the scale) is actually the most reliable single predictor of educational attainment. Even if you don’t believe in intelligence as a heritable trait, working class kids that go to grammar school have this in common – ambitious parents who are interested in their kids education and expect it to be of value.
Without going into an enormous amount of social psychology, the values that parents have towards education are transmitted (partly subconciously) to their kids. If education got you nothing then you expect it to get your kids nothing, and you do not value it. Your kids will pass on that attitude on to theirs and so it goes on.
This is why the idea that you can raise standards by fiddling with the social environment of the school (the cirriculum, the teaching methods etc etc) completely misses an arguably more important influence and has little long term effect.

Could it be that both things are true? That poor educational attainment leads to poverty which leads to poor educational attainment for the next generation.

Regarding parents not caring about their children’s education – one of the essays in Freakonomics talks about somewhere in the States, where parents could do nothing and their child would go to the most local school, or they could apply for their kid to go to a different (in their view better) school. While not all those who applied got to go to the alternate school, they found that the correlation was between applying for a different school and improved outcomes rather than actually getting into the school being the trigger. It was suggested that the trigger is parents caring about their child’s schooling (evidenced by applying to go to a different school) is more important than the quality of the school itself.

I agree the cause – effect model is probably bi-directional. The more significant point though is how has the link between education and acheivement been lost for a not insignificant section of the population ?
I wasn’t around at the time but when universal free education was introduced it was presumably valued by its’ recipients, in the same way as the NHS, or a state pension, as being something desirable, which was previously out of reach, and is now freely avaiable. It must have seemed “liberating”. Why is it not seen as such now ? The possibilities I can think of are

1) It is no longer an escape from intolerable poverty, because intolerable poverty no longer exists, effort put into education is therefore seen as wasted. This is an argument against welfarism.

2) Certain sections of society, for reasons which may or may not be genetic are simply incapable of benefitting from an education, no matter how good it is. This is an argument I don’t want to get into.

3) Poor role modelling. The old class system gave a visible hierarchy, opportunities for scaling it were restricted and peoples expectations were therefore lower. 20 years ago winning a reality TV show, becoming a premiership footballer/wag or winning the lottery were not seen as realistic routes out of poverty. Expectations have thus been raised, but the means of acheiving them for most, have not. This is an argument about cultural relativism .

A very interesting idea. If I understand this pre-life insurance correctly what Mr Dillow is proposing that people would just be given a lump of resources in compensation for being born to a less than average situation, then let to get on with it however they choose. Like an insurance company would not necessarily give you exactly what you had insured if it is broken but a lump of money equivalent to it. This contrasts with the current model where the state endeavors to take those less well off and change them into something it considers better. Converted into actual policy this has certain similarities to the Lib-Dem’s pupil premiums.

15. Andrew Chamberlain

I don’t see that being left wing necessarily means being in favour of pursuing either equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Isn’t favouring radical reforms aimed specifically at bettering the lot of the least well off in our society sufficient to be a left winger? You can justify redistribution in terms of advancing the freedom of individuals to live their lives. No commitment to equality is necessary. All that’s needed is a rule of thumb to decide when to stop redistributing wealth. The rule of thumb I would put forward is that we should redistribute wealth from rich to poor whenever the freedom of the latter is enhanced by more than the freedom of the former is diminished. The end result of this would not be equality of outcome or opportunity. It would be that each individual has the maximum freedom to live his/her life given that the state is attempting to maximise the freedom of every other individual at the same time.

In my view following this rule would lead to significantly more wealth redistribution than at present aimed at achieving worthwhile, practical increases in the living standards of the least well off rather than at achieving intrinsically worthless objectives like equality of opportunity or outcome. A commitment to equality is not only unnecessary for left wingers, I would argue that it is something that is holding us back by distracting us from nailing down a modern coherent radical agenda that hasn’t been rendered implausible by the failed left wing programmes of the past century. A thorough-going liberalism could serve as the basis for the first left wing government of the post-Thatcher era.

It’s easy to reconcile outlawing private education with liberalism!

That’s because I think of “liberalism” as a way of thinking; an open mined, reasoned, rational way of thinking that’s not afraid of backing away from radical conclusions (if that’s where reason takes you), is not held back by political dogma or tradition, while always aiming for the common greater good.

That the well off can pay to remove their children from an acceptable state education, while those at the bottom fail to benefit from it is a tragedy.
The best classroom for all children (an I have experience of this) is one with a range of ability in it; all children benefit from this environment. Selection detracts from this mixed environment, to the detriment of those at the bottom.
Also, education is about more than grades. A better socially educated child will emerge from a school where there is a real mix of backgrounds.
Private education makes good grades, but poor social understanding, and serves to undermine the social cohesion Conservatives pretend to desire.

@ Johnathan Rigall

I disagree with your view that a classroom of mixed ability is best for all children. I went to a comprehensive and only through sheer bloody mindedness and hard work did I manage to go to a good university. We were streamed within the school, so those of lesser ability couldn’t detract from the ability of the brighter kids to learn because those of lesser ability were (in 9/10 cases) so incredibly unruly as to make it impossible for the teacher to teach. I speak of my experiences from high school and being only 21 now, they weren’t that long ago.

I agree on your point about social eduction though. When I went to university I met a lot of public school kids who were so mal-adjusted to the real world it beggars belief.

18. Susan Francis

I agree totally with your last paragraph, Chris D. I’m not so sure about the previous one: “even though singleness is a source of unhappiness which might justify redistribution” – where did that idea come from? Singleness isn’t a source of unhappiness for me or anyone else I know, as far as I can tell. If it was, I reckon money wouldn’t fix it.

Some people here (or perhaps it was on the school leaving age thread) seem to be saying that poor children doing poorly in school are the fault of low expectations on the part of their parents. Low expectations from various parties may be part of it, but I think I hear some blaming-the-victim going on. “Last Chance Kids” in Channel 4’s “Lost for Words” season showed parents who wanted their children to do better but lacked the (not necessarily financial) resources. The further behind you get, the harder it is to catch up.

19. dreamingspire

Parental interest, determination even, yes, but the inherited genetic component is missing from the argument here.
James: I, too, but 40 odd years ago, “met a lot of public school kids who were so mal-adjusted to the real world”, but largely kept away from them (except in some cases when we found them incapably drunk and helped them back to their rooms). Meeting, for the first time, those who were not mal-adjusted was an education in itself.

Why private education is wrong:

The most privileged in society do not need yet another advantage over the underprivileged.

Extra money and time ought to be pumped into schools in deprived areas. For example, salaries in such places could be higher so as to attract the best teachers (the best kids don’t need the best teachers; it’s the worst kids who do).

Kids from well educated families will do fine in most environments – I’m certainly not saying they should be neglected, just that they shouldn’t be the priority in a system that fails some parts of society.

If Eton is such an incredible school, let it educate the kids that currently don’t have much of a chance.
As it stands, the vast majority of private education just exacerbates current inequalities.

“Let it educate”…do you mean force it to educate?
How liberal of you!
How long do you think their superb teachers would stick around?
Or would they be forced as well?!

“in a system that fails some parts of society”
Exactly. How about doing something about that?
It’s the enforced inclusion of the worst kids which ruins the chances of the poor kids who want to get on.
You don’t fix something broken by breaking something that works, do you?

Sorry? Didn’t I mention better salaries to encourage teachers to go to difficult schools, which could be better funded too.

I’m not talking about forcing people to do anything, although I would abolish public schooling in Britain, as it doesn’t help those who need it most. Again; the more intelligent and privileged are not those who need the most help.

I think you are confusing “liberal” with “libertarian”… I’m not interested in a political system based on “absence of restraint”: THAT kind of freedom benefits the haves, not the have-nots.

I think you are confusing “liberal” with “dirigiste”…concepts not usually easily confused!

PS I am in favour of intervention, but I would *start* by attempting to fix those parts of the system which are most obviously broken, not by blaming private education for the abject failures of the state.

“the more intelligent and privileged are not those who need the most help”

Well the privileged are not getting any help from the state anyway, are they? (The tax advantages of charitable status are trivial relative to overall private school fee income, before you start on that one!)

Do the intelligent not need help??!!
What about the intelligent children from poor homes whose chances are being ruined by the appalling lack of discipline in their schools; who are bullied for simply wanting to get on?
Do they not both need and deserve the most help??


“Extra money and time ought to be pumped into schools in deprived areas. For example, salaries in such places could be higher so as to attract the best teachers (the best kids don’t need the best teachers; it’s the worst kids who do).”

All kids deserve help, but (and I’ve worked in schools) the most difficult children are often deserving of the most help – sometimes this means removing them from the classroom to have special attention. The “worst” kid I ever came across was the eldest of three difficult children who had a single mum who couldn’t cope – he’d been in and out of state care throughout primary school.His behaviour was appalling. In my opinion he was deserving of special attention at school – both to make classrooms tolerable for the rest and because he needed it to make up for his problematic background.
Giving him help did not deprive the most intelligent in the classes, it allowed them to get on.

Now, I didn’t say the intelligent didn’t need help, just that they don’t need THE MOST help. You are I being a little disingenuous there. All kids need support, bullying and discipline need to be tackled.

Again, private education does nothing to help those who need it most, and also gives an advantage to those who frankly have enough advantages already. If you can afford to pay thousands of pounds for education each year – you should be paying more tax. Private schools also seem to result in elitism in other realms, such as politics (see the Lib Dem leadership joke, I mean contest).

If all this makes me a “dirigiste”, so be it, as you appear to be a “conservative libertarian”. I definitely AM a liberal, though, as liberal values define my behaviour. If, for example, I was a Leninist, I would have conservatives taken outside and shot, but I’m a liberal; I believe in tolerance and freedom of expression.

Jonathan @ 17 said: “That’s because I think of “liberalism” as a way of thinking; an open mined, reasoned, rational way of thinking that’s not afraid of backing away from radical conclusions (if that’s where reason takes you), is not held back by political dogma or tradition, while always aiming for the common greater good.”

You might think of liberalism like that. But that’s not what it means. It means, well, liberalism. The common sense, open-mindedness and rationality are associated qualities that come afterwards. It’s quite possible to approach a problem like the impact of private education in an open-minded, reasoned, rational way and not come out with a sweeping one-size-fits-all solution like, “Ban them all.” I’d say the quality you’re omitting from your associative list is the humility to understand that different people want different things.

Jonathan Rigall said:
“The best classroom for all children (an I have experience of this) is one with a range of ability in it; all children benefit from this environment. Selection detracts from this mixed environment, to the detriment of those at the bottom.”

Is that view supported by empirical evidence, or is it just the comprehensive “I’m making a difference” factor kicking in ?
Anyone who has been to school knows that the lowest achievers are also the most disruptive This isn’t anyone’s “fault” (If you don’t understand what’s being taught, you get bored, and boredom = disruption). How do you square your assertion with the fact that the best performing parts of the secondary education system (selective state and private schools) are selective, and why should I, as a funder of and stakeholder in the education system, accept that my children’s education be compromised (and their liberty thus constrained) in the cause of helping the disadvantaged ?
And how on earth would you “abolish public schooling” – what’s to stop the rich sending their kids abroad to be educated ?

Banning private schools is not liberal, it is authoritarian. If you try and “level” a society, it will find a way – witness Malaysia and its “Bumiputra” fascism – result: Chinese end up being educated abroad and so are even MORE advantaged and ahead of the Malays.

Chucking kids with all different educational needs into the same class is little short of child abuse, if you ask me. That is not the same as having them in the same school, btw.

The only widespread poverty in the UK now is one of ambition.

Equal opportunity does not lead to equal results. People have differing abilities, so in fact equal opportunity will lead to unequal results, thus your premise is wrong from the outset. The only way to get the equal results you seem to actually desire, is to handicap the more gifted so that everyone performs on the same level.

Jonathan – asserting that you ARE a liberal in capital letters does not necessarily make you one.
Your policy prescriptions appear to be rather illiberal.
Being a liberal is something more than good manners!

30. Education Guy

Your idea of punishing the rich, by taking away what they have earned to be given to someone else who didn’t do anything to earn it, will only serve as a disincentive to obtain wealth (get rich) for both the rich and the poor.

The best sort of tax is one that focuses on dollars spent on non-essential items, because it isn’t punitive to either the rich or the poor.

Well, I am not with the times, I guess. It’s surprising…. some years ago it was quite an acceptable liberal position to want to abolish private education, or at least so it seemed.
Whatever the extremeties of my writing, I’m quite saddened that there is no-one else on this liberal-left site who feels the same about it.

Would everyone now send their kids to a public school without any sense of guilt or of having given up on society? Is private education perfectly morally acceptable in Britain today?

If it is, I disagree, and I worry about our future. I’ll continue to argue against this, regardless.

Are there any lefty woolly liberals left out there?

Education Guy – That has always been the paradox at the heart of left thinking on education, wanting to increase social mobility whilst simultaneously removing any advantage that social mobility confers.
You are now classed as a “pushy middle class” parent for (shock horror) moving house to get your kids into a decent school, rather than the 0.1 GCSE average local one the council are desperately trying to fill. Moving house for a job, good. Doing it for your kids future, bad ?

I thought “liberal conspiracy” was supposed to be a home for left-liberals?

Anybody read Roger Thornhill’s (comment 28) blog? It appears about as left-liberal as Hitler, from my brief scan.

If the comments to this piece are in general “left liberal”, the “left liberal” has moved a long way right over the past ten or fifteen years.

Johnathan: “Would everyone now send their kids to a public school without any sense of guilt or of having given up on society? ”

The question is non-sequitur, as sending kids to public school is not “giving up on society”. It may be giving up on the (dysfunctional) State education system, but that is as far as it goes. I challenge anyone to honestly say they would put their kids willingly into a dysfunctional system/school in the hope it will somehow repair if they actually had any chance of avoiding doing so.

Anyhow, I suggest you look closer at my blog. To think it is something like Hitler is absurd in the extreme – I am very much anti Statist, anti Fascist and anti Authoritarian. To some it may seem “anti Liberal” but that is not surprising, as a number here seem to think “Liberal” means Authoritarian, collectivist and Statist! And yes, the name and colour scheme is in fact irony.

Oh, pick up your toys Jonathan and let’s be friends. I can see what you’re getting at.

I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) anyone here is singing the praises of private schooling (dunno about their blogs). The main point of this site, as I see it, is getting people together to discuss the nitty-gritty of left and/or liberal policy, not sit around agreeing with each other and feeling fluffy (nice though that is).

So, of course I’m not defending private schooling, but what on earth makes you think that the two choices are (1) abolish them or (2) let them rampage unchecked over the socially disadvantaged? That doesn’t seem very rational to me.

The objection raised by me and others is to your use of the term liberal to cover an extremely authoritarian viewpoint.

36. Education Guy

People are always going to act in their own self interest (although not always exclusively), and so any policy prescription that does not fully take this into account is doomed to fail, and will most likely hurt a bunch of people while doing so. Private schools, while perhaps not the “ideal”, do provide people with a mechanism for acting in a way that they feel is best for their children, and in cases where the public schools are actually failing our children, they can represent a lifeline to those who might otherwise be robbed of an education.

We can sit around and decry the unfairness of it all, but we cannot be honest if we don’t take into account the idea that fair is likely to be a subjective concept and note that a system that fails everyone a little can be worse than one that only fails some.

Well, I’ll say it again, anti-private schooling = authoritarian? Really?

I find the acceptance of private schooling a little repugnant, and education policy in recent years has done little to address inequalities in the system.
Academies are a fudge, faith schools are abhorrent and anti-liberal, and ideas to let local communities fund their schools would serve to make schools in poor areas even worse off, relatively.
People seem to have given up on the idea of progressive politics, and accepted the mantra that the only way you can better yourself is by becoming rich. I have felt, over the past 15 years, increasingly alienated from this increasingly consumerist and competitive society. It seems a bit, well, shallow. I hope I’m wrong.

I enjoy arguing a lot, by the way, and a little anger is part of that. Don’t think I’m getting offended! Toys are always kept in the pram.

What? How are faith schools anti-liberal? They might be anti-lots of other things which you believe are desirable, but ‘liberal’ is not a synonym for ‘things I like’.

“Well, I’ll say it again, anti-private schooling = authoritarian? Really?”

Nononono! [Throws toy at Jonathan]. Being anti-private schooling is a matter of opinion, and it’s an opinion I share. Deciding that the way forward is therefore to issue a dictat exterminating them – that IS authoritarian!

Echo Rob K, “‘liberal’ is not a synonym for ‘things I like'”.

Echo Roger Thornhill @ 36, “a number here seem to think “Liberal” means Authoritarian, collectivist and Statist”

The idea of faith schools personally gives me the screaming ab-dabs (far more so than private schools). Do I have trouble with the fact that they exist? You betcha. Do I nevertheless concede that they shouldn’t be banned because I am one person and the many people who support faith schools should not be deprived of what they want because I want something different? Yes. I’m a liberal. It’s what we do.

So in making what I concede is a personally tricksy decision that faith schools and private schools should be allowed to exist, in what way am I giving up on progressive politics and conceding that the way of getting on is by being rich?

“Over the past 15 years” – well that tells me you’re older than I am, and perhaps entering disillusionment territory. I’m sure it’s horrid and I’m not looking forward to it, but please don’t conclude that because you can’t make sense of what I’m saying on the tired old righty-lefty scale that there’s no hope for society!

I’m going to come back to what you say about local funding for schools because that feeds directly into the Lib Dem agenda. Need more info.

Neither banning public schools nor greater redistibution will work.

Considering that we live in a (relatively) free-market society, oppurtunity cannot be measured and therefore cannot be equalised by the state.

Aside from careers that require qualifications (doctors, architects, accountants), there is no force preventing a company from hiring anyone it likes. In theory, there is no connection between intelligence or qualifications and oppurtunity, employability, success, etc.

Intelligent people exist regardless of their social status. The fact that they have the oppurtunity to educate themselves at their own will, especially since the internet has become a dominant form of communication, means that institutional schooling is worthless if people don’t have the incentive to learn.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain

Seems to me that there is some confusion over the issues. Firstly it is about the standard (ie content) of the education on offer. Secondly it is about money. I can see how there is a correlation, but I don’t see that it is direct or that it provides causation in either direction.
Every school is different because they have different teachers, different pupils and different facilities, the real benefit is in learning that whatever you are provided with you can overcome the limitations of the situations. That is something that can never be compensated for, whatever level of luxury you may be accustomed to, just look at the difference between wills and harry.

@ Jonathan. The best way of getting rid of private schools is not to ban them, it’s to remove the economic incentives there are to use them.

Remove charitable status and incentives them to move (back) into the public sector, and then start taxing the fees with VAT and use the money on other local schools.

Just banning them is a bad idea for a huge number of reasons, but if you want to support it, go ahead. Just don’t try and pretend it’s a liberal position, it isn’t, liberalism is about choice and personal responsibilities.

Tax the externalities of the parents that care withdrawing their kids, don’t just ban them from doing it, you’ll get an upsurge in home schooling instead, and that’d be worse–look at the States.

@Alix. Please get out of my head, it’s really disconcerting.

There are many ways to increase equality without squashing the ambitions of those trying to better themselves (which is what banning private schooling would do). The key is to look into all the ways in which the rich get paid for being rich, and focus on those which A. require mixing little labor or risk, and B. produce nothing of value.

A tax on ground-rents should be the first order of business. Then, work on lowering the real cost of capital and making it available to the less well connected. (All these ideas can be found in Smith.)

For expansions on these ideas and others, see my series The Balance of Wealth.

MatGB, I see your point, and Alix too (to an extent).

Can I still say “I want to ban private education”, while being aware that a compromise in that direction would also be good? It’s like holding an ideal, but being realistic about getting there…

I can’t agree to just let faith schools exist because some people want them. If they were in the private sector, whatever, but in the state? That FORCES some parents (who can’t afford to move) to give their children to a religious institution with which they may not agree.
A non faith school, by the way, is not the opposite; it doesn’t force religious children to lose their faith or anything, it just doesn’t have a secret desire to tell kids that God did everything.
Secular educations give children a choice in what they believe. That’s liberal, not just “what I like” (I have a politics degree somewhere, so I should know what I’m on about).

Talking of faith, while I completely disagree with what you say, Carl @ number 44, your website is a garish rainbow of biblical fun.

Johnathan, you can always say “I want to ban private education” but you must recognise that the view is not Liberal in the least.

I find it odd that you recoil at the thought of religious schools somehow forcing parents (due to the scarcity that often comes as a result of monopolistic State run education) to use them, yet you do not even blink when forcing them into the State system. I am not suggesting support for religious schools, btw!

…the difference is there is that, as I said, a non-religious state school does not force a belief system on a child. I do not care for parents who think it’s OK to force religion on children. If your religion is so obviously right, your child will discover it is so. If that’s illiberal, well….
…the longer I stay on this thread the more I don’t want to be considered a liberal. Liberal here seems to mean a lack of assertiveness, and a desire to let people do whatever they want regardless of whether it is right, or damaging to other people. I’m sure that is a libertarian attitude, not liberal, but hey, majority rules, I lose.

47. Susan Francis

Damn, I’ve come back to this too late if Jonathan has given up and gone away. I agree with most of what he says, especially @38 and 45. “Faith” schools and “academies” (some of which are run by fundamentalists) are being subsidized with public money and capturing children who just need a good school, to be indoctrinated in … whatever the person who bought the contract wants to indoctrinate them in. This is supposed to be a left liberal site; what happened to the Left part?

Johnathan, your ban on private schools is totally separate from your views on religious schools funded via the State. Please do not conflate them – I did try to make it clear I was not combining them in my response. Apologies if that was the case. I agree with your assertion that if someone thinks their religion is strong and right, they should believe that the child should, as they get older, realise it. I think we both know what is feared – they might find out their religion is man made and flawed.

I do think that State schools should be secular, ideally. The issue of religious schools may have been simpler if it were not for the view of some that now, with Islamic schools in the frame, better to get (er, is that “bribe”?) them into the State system “where we can keep a better eye on them”. I am not suggesting that is the right attitude, btw.

The issues here are not so much “letting people do whatever they want” but to “NOT (make people do what I want)” – do you understand the difference in the logic? Libertarianism is not about letting people do whatever they want, for that is Anarchy.

Susan @48, thanks! I was getting lonely 🙂

And Roger, I do understand the difference in logic; I still disagree that my stance makes me authoritarian; just progressive. What I’ve read from you and others is libertarianism – this is commonly considered the Right’s end of the liberal spectrum, am I not correct? I’m not a libertarian.

I’m not an authoritarian, either, as I wouldn’t throw people in gaol for disagreeing with me (well, I hope not, but I never expect to be in the position to do that :).

Jonathan @ 44 — I was pointing at one of my secular articles (The Balance of Wealth). Yes, there are also Biblical articles on my site as well — which focus on the lefty parts of the Bible.

As for schools, at least on this side of the point, going from public schools to vouchers would be more egalitarian than the current system. Our poor tend to be concentrated in inner cities. With high population density comes more shopping opportunities. Our system of city based schools boards was designed for small towns with a natural monopoly on education — a monopoly due to kids walking to school and low population density.

BTW, people need not get equal education in order to have equal incomes. All you have to do is saturate the market of those skills which currently make big bucks (and watch out for guild rules which grant rent-seeking privileges for those in early). For example, I come across many people with four year liberal arts educations who end up making less than plumbers or auto mechanics. There is a diminishing return for more people who can parse Shakespeare.

Johnathan, how is it “progressive” to force people to pay for something they do not want while at the same time use the law to prevent them from even paying twice to get what they do want? Authoritarianism makes all society a prison and forcing State education onto all is just one part of that. You think you are right and you are forcing your views onto others. That is, I am afraid, authoritarian. If that is what the Left calls “progressive” these days, then it is good to know that.

BTW I am not “right” or “left”, but for freedom, Rule of Law and self-responsibility, i.e. against Authoritarianism. Maybe you classify me as “right” because I have a low toleration of collectivist ideas – to me, anyone who sees enforced collectivism as anything but a necessary evil pending a better way is not Libertarian, nor Liberal, come to that. Maybe I appear on the Right because I am just not on the Left! 😉

It seems to me that there are two different arguments against faith schools that can often get conflated.

One (which I’ll loosely label ‘leftist’) is the anti-clerical, French Revolutionary idea that we should keep those corrupting, regressive, myth-peddling Jesuits as far away from our budding citizens’ education as we can.

The other (which I’ll loosely label ‘liberal’) is to let the corrupting, regressive, myth-peddling Jesuits do what they want providing they don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it.

I have intellectual sympathy for the leftist argument, but having emerged relatively unscathed from a generally decent Catholic grammar school, I can’t drum up too much Jacobin fervour about banning faith schools outright.

I can however get bloody angry about the state paying for these schools and allowing them to discriminate on religious grounds. You might just be able to make a plausible case for this arrangement if there was genuine equality of choice between a range of equally good faith and non-faith schools. But that patently isn’t the case.

The reality in many areas is that children from families of no faith or the wrong faith are regularly denied access to the best local state-funded school because they don’t attend the right church, or (perhaps even more galling for those who choose to play the game) they don’t schmooze the priest successfully enough to get the right kind of reference. Whether you’re a leftist or liberal or both, this can’t be right.

It effectively gives the power of selection to individual priests. It encourages systematic hypocrisy, and it privileges children with parents who are able to network and devote time to the cause – whether they really believe in it or not.


“Tax the externalities of the parents that care withdrawing their kids…”

I assume that you are talking about negative externalities, for why else would you want to tax them. So tell me, Mat, ‘cos I’m a wee bit confused: what are the negative externalities of parents putting their children into private education?

If it is true that those is private education are better educated than those who are not, it could be argued that it is likely that they contribute more to economic growth and that therefore the main externality is a positive one.

In which case, parents should be rewarded for putting their children through private education.

Well, it’s a point of view, no?


I know this is an unusual comment but I just wanted to thank everyone who contributed to the above discussion because it has really given me a lot to think about and I’ve enjoyed reading it all!

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