(January 1997)


The news is that seventy former pupils are preparing to sue their schools for the badness of their exam results. This underlines the craziness and ultimate unviability of a state educational system which has been divorced from market forces. This is an area in which the individual badly needs the protection provided by commercial considerations.

It is certainly true that spending time in a state school is an exceedingly inefficient and time-consuming way of learning anything, and especially for learning to take exams. But when the prevailing standard is so low, how can anyone possibly decide how blame is to be ascribed between the badness of the particular school and the disaffection or inattention of the pupil?

The net effect, if this trend catches on, will be a further drain on taxpayers. That is to say, they will have even more money taken away from them which they might have used to pay for their children's education, even if only in the form of a few hours with a tutor from time to time. All the cases lodged with solicitors so far have qualified for Legal Aid at the taxpayer's expense. If these cases succeed, they may receive 20,000 or 30,000 apiece; also at the taxpayer's expense.

The cost-efficiency of providing an extravagant and inefficient service, loosely related to the idea of education, will be still further reduced as the taxpayer has to pay further excess charges to anyone who sees fit to complain of it. Compare this with the situation of a private school where the profit motive predominates. The parents pay for the sort of goods they want to get, and if they don't think the school is providing them, they will take their money elsewhere. The school will become unprofitable if it fails to keep up its standards well enough to retain its clientele. The idea that the state should make available facilities for acquiring basic literacy and numeracy for those whose parents could not or would not pay for them has turned into the idea that everyone should be incarcerated in a collectivised institution for a large proportion of their waking hours for a period of at least eleven years.

But how is everyone to be induced to behave reasonably in a situation in which they do not, and perhaps should not, want to be? If they injure so many of their teachers and classmates that they have to be sent home, they have to be provided with an expensive home tutor, again at the taxpayer's expense. At its wits' end, the government proposes that parents should sign "compulsory contracts" (a contradiction in terms, surely?), agreeing to be responsible for forcing their children to attend the penal colony and to keep the rules of it while they are there. In the days before the welfare state, there was a fairly civilised law which made parents responsible for seeing that their children acquired the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and never mind how they did it.

You could reinstate such a system, however. Only if a child's parents defaulted so badly, or he resisted their efforts so vigorously, that he failed a minimum attainment test at certain ages, would he be sent to the state penitentiary as a fail-safe method. Nowadays there is a suggestion that everyone should be forced to stay at school until sufficient benefit has been administered to them, at least to the extent that they can read and write.

Surely some will opt for the life of the perennial schoolboy, as they used to do for that of the perennial student. Especially, come to think of it, paedophiles.