Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Not Compulsory

"Learning is not compulsory... neither is survival." W. Edwards Deming

This is a week all about education. As the British Parliament debates further changes to the education system, it is clear that the place of education is rising up the political agenda. I have no particular quarrel with treating students differently based on academic ability. I am sceptical about schools selecting on that basis- frankly the grammar school system I have seen in operation in Buckinghamshire is not an advert for good schools. I am more familiar with streaming or "setting" within comprehensive schools, and to my mind this both helps kids who might not get support from middle class parenting and it concentrates on brain power rather than social exclusivity. Class based schools are not a good thing for an open economy. Certainly in my own industry of finance, I see people of well below average intelligence managing to maintain managerial level jobs, despite being very unsuited to them, solely because they attended the "right" English public school. I may say that I do not think that these people are particularly satisfied with life.

Indeed it is the fact that the white collar parents have been so much more successful in getting their kids into education in France and Germany that has undermined the effectiveness of the education system in those countries. The Lisbon Council report on European education is damning, in France, Germany and Italy, class distinction is a major cause for concern:

"Europeans from difficult socio-economic backgrounds don't receive the same educational opportunities as children from rich and middle-class families," the Council said. "In many countries, the data suggest that European schools reinforce existing socio-economic inequities."

The conclusion is that unless education is provided to kids, regardless of social-economic background, then economies can start to fall behind in terms of international competitiveness- indeed the Lisbon Council already thinks that this is happening to the European Union as a whole. They point out that Korea is already much better educated than the European average, while both India and China are producing science and technical graduates in the millions. Although France, Germany and Italy are particularly criticised, the fact is that the UK has not much to be happy about either. British technical education at high school level is neither rigorous nor particularly broad. There remain serious flaws in the teaching of maths and science subjects, and even the liberal arts are taught without, for example, a detailed knowledge of English grammar. As for language skills, the United Kingdom has almost abandoned effective teaching of modern languages even at high school level.

Unless the European Union can drastically improve access to education, the consequences could be critical. As Asia advances up the value added curve, Europe will possess increasingly dated brands with less innovation behind them. The restrictive labour laws and expensive labour rates in Europe will make inward investment ever less attractive as Asia provides more and better workers. Asia will provide ever greater markets, while the European demographic decline will increase costs and reduce opportunities. Meanwhile the European uneducated underclass will grow ever more fractious as they are completely excluded from economic prosperity. In the global economy, Europe could be reduced to Latin American levels of relevance as the power houses of South and East Asia come to challenge the economic power of even the United States.

Yet it is not just an economic or social benefit that we receive from education after all, there is a moral purpose to education too:

"There are more men ennobled by study than by nature". Marcus Tullius Cicero

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