James – Year 12 Student
One tenet of economic theory is the efficient use of resources or factors of production, be they land, labour, capital or entrepreneurship. This is because it reduces wastage and so these factors of production can be used for other purposes, facilitating greater economic growth.
However, gross social inequality pervades our economy and hampers the efficient use of labour. Indeed, when we diminish equality of opportunity we cannot use the economy’s most valuable asset – people – in the most productive method possible.
Equality of opportunity is a principle by which all in society have the same potential to economically thrive, irrespective of social background. Therefore, in a society where such equality has been achieved, an intelligent child from a low socio-economic background will be just as likely to go onto a successful career as an intelligent child from a wealthier background. Not only is this morally good as it promotes fairness, but economically it is pragmatic as the most intelligent minority will be able to be educated without hindrance, thereby allowing them to go to university and thus drive economic growth through innovation and employment in the tertiary, quaternary and quinary sectors. The more equal the playing field, the greater the number of people that will be able to strive for these high aspirations.
Indeed, the most obvious method of levelling the education playing field is by closing private schools – they draw the best teachers out of the state sector with incentives such as higher wages or smaller, more controllable class sizes – as it would mean all students receive a homogenous state education. But this isn’t practically feasible. In its current disposition, the state school sector would not be able to cope with a sudden influx of new students – particularly in lieu of the fact average class sizes are 21.7 pupils and 12.1% of classes have 31 pupils or more – and thus closing private schools would unleash havoc and further stretch already limited state school resources.
On the other hand, we hear the notion that standards within state schools can be improved dramatically with greater funding. Under Tory austerity measures school provision has dramatically been reduced – there is a £481 million shortfall for just Yorkshire schools alone – leading to bare-bones service in many schools. Our brightest young people cannot academically thrive in such environments, especially if co-curricular opportunities are being reduced at a time when top universities’ demand for soft-skills is greater than ever. Increasing funding would be a step back in the right direction, as schools will have more resources to facilitate academic enrichment. However, its impact perhaps may be overstated as it doesn’t affect the incentives that draw the better teachers to private schools in the first place: the inequality will still remain as the best teachers will continue to only educate the wealthiest.
Proposals to raise state teacher’s wages are perhaps a method to reduce the extent to which the best teachers gravitate towards private schools. However, the increase in wages must also be coupled with a raising of teacher training entry standards for teaching standards to actually improve. Why is this? An increase in pay will attract more prospective applicants, and thus also an increase in lower academically achieving applicants. This will mean that, unless teacher training standards are raised, a higher number of applicants without excellent academic credentials will therefore enter our schooling system; whilst costs will dramatically increase due to said wage increases, academic results will not improve as better teachers are not being recruited – a gross waste of taxpayers’ money, in my opinion. As you can clearly see then, wages and entry standards must rise in tandem. This policy should be the long term goal for any UK government as the education sector would return to being led by some of the brightest minds – the higher wage makes teaching an attractive career to stellar graduates and the higher entry requirements would ensure only they get the jobs – and so teaching within the state sector would improve. This has been seen in Finland, which as a result of a highly selective teacher training course was deemed to have the best education system globally in 2017. However, in the short term, if we were to restrict teacher training placements to those with strong qualifications, then this will compound the severe shortage of teachers within the state sector at the moment and further exacerbate the issue. Therefore, I would argue that although said policy should be implemented in the long term, alternative methods of reducing inequality in opportunity must be sought at this current moment time.
An unpopular but much more pragmatic route to follow is to offer state-funded bursaries to private schools. I know what you’re thinking: that’s a cop-out. How can you reconcile equality of opportunity with private education? But, in our current circumstances it is the most sensible option, and it will benefit the economy. Currently, private schools are reliant on alumni and donations to fund their bursaries and scholarships, meaning that numbers are low and scope to expand is small. Therefore, under the status quo the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in private schools is and will remain low. State funding would remove these financial barriers, and therefore allow the brightest students from low socio-economic backgrounds to accelerate their potential. This would lead to the plethora of benefits that equality of opportunity (albeit in this case it is not full equality) brings, without the detrimental impacts of taxing private schools out of existence and/or the severe shortfall in teachers when entry standards and wages are increased. Labour promises £10.5 billion more funding for education while the Conservatives propose £7.1 billion, and yet both are truly missing a relatively low-cost opportunity to create a highly skilled workforce of tomorrow. They are missing an opportunity to efficiently utilise the workforce of the future. JH
‘The Price of Inequality’ by Joseph Stiglitz