Failing schools should face the same fate as Lehman Brothers

Daniel Cowdrill 6.00am

‘Meme’ is short for the ancient Greek ‘mimene’, or in English, ‘something inherited’. It was coined by Professor Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). A ‘meme’ is an idea that behaves like a gene. It describes a process whereby ideas and practices are transmitted from one mind to another via variation, competition and inheritance. The result is that self-evidently we improve over time.

Improvement springs from social interaction and exposure to how other people do things. A simple example is driving on the left-hand side of the road. It was enshrined in law only recently but through interaction people learned to ride their carriages on the left and later their cars.

Without ‘Meme’, bad practices can develop. We witness this regularly in the market economy. Who would have thought, for instance, that by the end of 2008 some investment banks would have disappeared? From the 1990s onwards their leaders acquired an elevated position as ‘masters of the universe’. Inertia limited the functioning of the Meme. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley since either collapsed or abandoned their lofty positions.

But let us focus on education. The highly respected Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows that Britain has slumped to 28th place in maths (from 24th four years ago), 25th in reading (from 17th) and 15th in science (from 14th). Searching questions must be asked as to why this relative decline has taken place.

The tripartite system of education introduced after the Second World War - grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns - was inadequate for a number of reasons. However, the move to comprehensive schooling caused its own problems. It made a a virtue of reducing variation and competition, hence it has rightly been criticised for encouraging mediocrity at the expense of excellence.

It is vital in education to encourage variation and competition so that the transmission of good practice occurs most widely. One can argue that greater competition has driven educational standards higher in Europe. It can also be argued that Catholicism’s historic resistance to public schooling in France has resulted in a much greater proportion of independent schools than in the UK, thus creating a market that boosts educational standards.

Research published in the Economic Journal by academics at the Harvard School of Education and the University of Munich suggests that there is a causal link between higher numbers of privately educated students and higher educational attainment in general. This is not due to more people attending private schools but because the wider existence of private schools push up overall standards. State schools have to work harder to attract the best pupils against the competition of nearby affordable private schools, hence driving up standards for everyone. Good state schools in turn put pressure on private schools to justify the additional costs to parents.

Choice in education does not just mean more private schools, rather it means more independent schools with their own customs and practices that can be appropriated and improved on by others. While education policy certainly must address equality of opportunity, the Meme will do the rest.

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