Zero-sum education?


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Post-war economists considered education a ‘public’ but also an individual ‘merit good’ benefitting both society and the individual. Indeed, like the National Health Service, education reforms were a key part of the welfare state. Educational reformers have continued to operate with these assumptions, but in other respects, education and the NHS are very different.

Devoting more resources to the NHS will improve the health of everybody, but as the 21st century unwinds, in an increasingly precarious labour market, with a shortage of secure jobs for young people, education has become a ‘positional’ or ‘zero-sum’ good with high status qualifications sought to secure a better position at the expense of others. Thus, education increasingly becomes like a tug of war or akin to running up a downwards escalator.   

Likewise schools, colleges and universities spend more and more of their resources on differentiating themselves from one another in the race to attract the best students. A teacher who spends large amount of classroom time coaching students in ‘examination technique’ to out perform those in the school down the road (and ensure their own salary progression) is not increasing the general intellect, let alone the welfare of society.

All of this has serious implications for education policy makers, not least for an incoming Labour government with a popular mandate to reduce social inequalities. Coming to power facing a very different occupational structure, Labour could no longer rely on the upward social mobility of the post-war years where, because of the expansion of managerial and professional employment, working class youth were able to move up without those in the middle class having to move down.

To achieve any significant degree of ‘equality’ Labour would have to go much further than ever before in challenging the ability of the more powerful groups in society to ensure privilege and  rites of passage to prestigious institutions (and then into the labour market) are maintained. In other words the emphasis would have to be on the redistribution of educational resources, rather than the improvement of the service in general.

Amongst other things, this would entail not only ending the existence of different types of state schools and introducing funding by social need rather than student numbers, but also restricting access to private schooling and introducing legislation to ensure that elite university admissions reflect the population at large. These types of policies would be considered well outside the boundaries of mainstream social democratic politics, although it should not be assumed they wouldn’t be popular!

But for education to really become a ‘public good’ rather than a zero-sum commodity, wider changes in the relationship between education and employment would be necessary. Young people encouraged to complete a course of study would need to be assured that it would lead to clear economic rewards, but also enhance the ability to participate in society at a more general level. This would be a tall order,  but one that cannot be avoided.

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