US economist Thomas Sowell provided an important insight into education when he said: “It is not simply what education teaches us directly, but how well it prepares us to learn ourselves that is the ultimate measure of its value.”
How many students in South Africa’s schools are being prepared to learn themselves and to develop a love of learning? Unfortunately, the reports tell of shocking general results that are leaving scars on the minds of students. Many teachers will be left with a feeling of helplessness about the situation and hoping upon hope for positive change.
Change could be introduced by allowing entrepreneurial teachers to take over and run some of the schools, with government funding the students on a per capita basis. If they provide a good education and attract more students, they receive additional funding. If all government schools received funding based on the number of students they attract, the attitudes of teachers would soon change if they started losing students and funds.
Governments around the world have reserved the field of education to themselves. In doing so, they have posted “keep out” signs informing entrepreneurs that they are not welcome. The consequence is that, while education is meaningful and useful only if it is based on the way a child actually is, education systems worldwide insist on treating children as if they are all the same.
In many instances, the wishes of parents and their children, with a vast diversity of aptitudes and interests, are disregarded. They are taught what the government decides they should be taught. In economic terms, schooling is supply-driven, not demand-driven.
If a supermarket were to ignore what its customers want and stocked its shelves with goods that it believed the customers should want, it would soon go out of business.
Imagine how different everything would be if education were driven by demand – if competitive markets in education could develop.
Removing barriers to entry is all that would be necessary to create a market led by innovative entrepreneurs discovering ever-better ways to impart knowledge, methods, skills, paradigms and principles to young pupils.
What would the great technological entrepreneurs do if they could educate without interference? If they were left to freely create educational offerings, they would be asking the appropriate questions.
What do our customers, the parents and their children, want? Based on feedback, they would prepare their educational packages and constantly upgrade them as is done with computer programmes of all kinds.
The education environment for young people would constantly be changing and everyone, including those from modest backgrounds, would be able to participate.
Contrast the approach of the entrepreneur with that of the average government. The government approach is: “What do we want them to know? How can we make them comply with our aims?” There is a vast difference in observed approaches and to the extent that entrepreneurs have managed to penetrate the educational field, there is a vast difference in outcomes.
Entrepreneurs are not necessarily people who make or sell things. They may be individuals who create new kinds of music or art forms, change the way the world thinks about wildlife conservation, or discover new kinds of life-saving medicines or medical devices. They may create ways to make everyday working and living easier and less expensive. If allowed to do so, they would make learning the most exciting and inspiring adventure in the life of every young person on Earth.
South Africa’s young people could do with such a learning environment that prepares them for life after school with the knowledge, ability and confidence that would come from having been challenged, inspired and allowed to explore to their hearts’ content. With a change of approach, such an environment could be created and much of the change could be brought about by current teachers who are itching to give their students a better deal. All they need is to be given the chance “to prepare their students how to learn themselves”.
Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation