Thursday, September 04, 2008

Education in the UK

This started out as a commentary on an article by Johann Hari, but then spread into a more general ideological point (not that I'd ever pursue an ideological principle in the Real World directly, I'd only do so after a decision based on [very] basic ethics and available evidence).

After reading Johann Hari's excellent comment on equality, education and the estate tax I am inspired to add my own comment on education.


I'm a liberal. I believe that individual freedom is both good and necessary.

Equality of Opportunity

People are not born equal. Because some people are naturally better than others at different things some people become more powerful than others. These people can exert power over their fellows, thus limiting their freedom.

Because of this it is impossible to create a truly "equal" society. However "equality" is not the same as "freedom."

What can be done is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. So if they wish, and they are capable of doing so, they can increase their power, income, intellect, ability, comfort, compassion, number of friends, or whatever their personal measure of success is.

I don't mind inequality in society as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.


A good step towards establishing equality of opportunity is to ensure that everyone receives the same standard of education. In the UK today we have a three-tier school system:

  1. The best schools are "private schools." These are schools where fees have to be paid for education.
  2. The next level of schools are a mix of "grammar schools," which select on the basis of academic ability, "faith schools," which select on the basis of religion, and "good comprehensives," which select on the basis of where you live.
  3. The lowest level of schools are called "bad comprehensives" or "sink schools." These are schools that are not very good. Because they aren't very good only the poorest people go there.
Because poor people have to send their children to bad schools poor children are more likely to receive a bad education, and are less likely to succeed in later life and therefore more likely to be poor when they are older.

Because rich people are more likely to send their children to private schools, the children of the rich are more likely to receive a good education than the children of the poor.

This runs counter to the principle of equality of opportunity. The freedoms of the poor are inhibited by their poverty.

Private Schools Should be Run as Private Businesses

In the UK private schools benefit from "charitable status." This means they don't have to pay as much tax as most private businesses.

I have no problem with private schools, but they must be run as private businesses, rather than as institutions subsidised by that state for the benefit of the rich.

Comprehensive Schools

In order to ensure equality of opportunity and the freedom of individual children then a truly comprehensive school system must be created. Such a system will be one where all children go to their local state-funded school.

There will still be problems whereby the lower quality-of-life of some poorer areas will have a negative impact on the quality of education in that area. But the problem will then become a (relatively) straightforward task of improving certain specific schools.

In this case the children in schools in poor areas will have access to the opportunities needed to leave poor areas if they wish to.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

I am not a collectivist, I believe in individual freedom, and that society, or the state, interfering in the lives of individuals is a bad thing. A representative government is the way our society has decided to pay for all the things that can't easily be provided by private companies or private individuals. But the state should not become too powerful.

It is important to realise that the state is not the only potential source of tyranny and enslavement. Monopolistic businesses, powerful individuals, ignorance, and poverty are also things that inhibit the freedom of the individual.

The Question of Private Schools

I believe that if someone believes that they can run a good business educating children for profit then they have every right to do so.

But what happens if the rich send their children to private schools? The children of rich people will then have an advantage relative to others, which contravenes the principle of equality of opportunity!

In this scenario the children of the rich will have a head-start by virtue of better education, and are therefore more likely to succeed!

The Imperfection of Life

Life isn't fair. However I believe that the objective of the state schools should be to improve, not remove competition from private schools.

In any case, without the unfair advantage of tax-exempt status enjoyed by private schools the number of private schools would fall. Also the cost of private school would increase.

By improving bad comprehensives, removing all the remaining grammar schools, and sending people to schools based on where they live or by a lottery there will be an incentive for all parents and politicians to lobby for all schools to be equally good.

It may seem like a limitation on the freedom of the parents to choose the best school for their children, but rather it is an enhancement of the freedom of poor people to succeed if they can or if they wish to.

In this case a clever child will still be more likely to succeed and exert power over those who are less driven or clever or ambitious or aggressive, but at least that child will have got to that position by her own ability.

The Rich

As I said before, it is likely that there will still be some inequality in the school system by virtue of private schools and home schooling and private tutors.

However the unfair or unequal advantages of the extremely rich can be compensated for to some degree by a 100% estate tax.

This would ensure that the children of the rich have the freedom to be their own person. They would not held as slaves to the tyranny of their parent's financial success.

They will still have significant advantages in terms of superior education, but they will then be free to make their own way in the world, unencumbered by inherited wealth.


The ultimate expression of tyranny is that of our enslavement to our own biology. The enslavement of genetic predisposition.

I believe that once the relevant technologies are available then this problem should be addressed. Unfortunately the technologies of human enhancement are currently at a fairly limited stage.

To me there is no distinction between asking the following two questions:

  • Why should someone have greater advantages at the start of their lives by virtue of their parent's money?
  • Why should someone have greater advantages at the start of their lives by virtue of their genetic predisposition to intelligence?
I see transhumanism as the ultimate expression of the Enlightenment Project, extending individual liberty and self-determination to the logical end of controlling all aspects of your personal biology, gender, proclivities, beliefs, skin-colour, physical abilities and body-forms.


I believe in freedom. I believe that in order to preserve the delicate balance required for individual freedom to flourish there are certain corrections that need to be addressed in society.

Education is clearly the area to start, and the closest thing to transhumanism we already have.

No comments: