Tuesday 10 July 2012, 09:36
""Over the past 50 years governments have encroached too far on the realm of civil society," says Niall Ferguson in his fourth and final Reith Lecture, titled Civil and Uncivil Societies .
Society, he says, would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. Basically, we can do better by doing it for ourselves.
Education, in particular, is one field Prof Ferguson believes could benefit from a more hands-off approach from the state.
"If there is one educational policy I should like to see adopted in the UK, it would be a policy that aimed to increase significantly the number of private schools," he declares.
It doesn't escape Prof Ferguson that this is the kind of statement which the Left reflexively denounce as elitist - especially, he says, privately educated liberals. There are conservatives, too, who see private schools as the cause of inequality, not a solution.
Well, says Niall Ferguson, they are utterly wrong.
For about a hundred years, he says, there's no doubt the expansion of state education was a good thing, because there was insufficient provision - but we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies like this.
The current state education system, says Ferguson, is a typical monopoly. Its quality has declined over the years because of a lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests - in this case, the government and teaching unions.
And that's where the state education system could benefit by emulating the private school sector - namely with increased independence and competition.
The growth of the Academy system in England and Wales - introduced by the previous Labour government and expanded with zeal by the current coalition - as well as the advent of Free Schools, says Ferguson, are a step in the right direction. These are schools autonomous from the state, in the hands of teachers and parents who understand the needs of their students better than a Whitehall bureaucrat.
Critics argue this is fine if you're in a middle-class neighbourhood, where the local parents have the time and social capital to make a Free School work, but what about those in poorer neighbourhoods?
What these critics seem to forget, says Prof Ferguson, is that children from deprived areas have already been failed. State education standards have suffered greatly as a result of rampant grade inflation to exaggerate performance and conceal decline.
"Are we really helping the poor by trapping them in rubbish schools?" Ferguson asks.
He points to the success of schools such as Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, one of London's most deprived boroughs. Previously condemned as a failing school, this year, ten Mossbourne students were offered places at Cambridge University.
Prof Ferguson makes it clear that he is not arguing for private schools over state schools, but a greater mix which will force all schools to raise their game.
"The biggest threat," he says "is complacency... thinking we're fine... that our schools are great."
If the education revolution of the 20th Century was that basic education became available for most people in democracies - the education revolution of the 21st Century, says Ferguson, should be that good education will become available for an increasing proportion of children.
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