Compulsory education is delivering contestable results. Governments seek a remedy by providing more of it.

In Mauritania, many parents caring for their girls’ future wellbeing send them at a tender age to board with women specialising in fattening them up by amiable but relentless force-feeding. Like most African men, Mauritanians prefer them well-rounded, and a girl who frankly bulges has a good chance of finding a rich husband, while a slim girl may have to content herself with being found by a poor one. Money may not make the girl happy, but the parents are nevertheless following a kind of economic rationale in having her force-fed. One does not know whether the rich husband will be nicer or on the contrary nastier than a poor one would be. With even chances of either outcome, rational choice must opt for the rich husband, for happy or unhappy, the girl will at least be more comfortable in the rich household.

There is a remote analogy between parents force-feeding their daughters with food and states force-feeding the children of their subjects with compulsory education. In both cases, compulsion is motivated by benevolent paternalism, though one might think that there is more excuse for parents acting paternalistically than the state doing so in loco parentis. However, the analogy stops here anyway. In particular, the results are not analogous at all.

According to statistics compiled by the European Commission, public expenditure on education by the 27 member states amounted to 5.09 per cent of the area’s gross national product, with private expenditure by families and non-government institutions adding a mere 0.64 per cent. The corresponding figures were 8.47 and 0.32 in Denmark, 5.12 and 2.32 in the U.S., 6.43 and 0.13 in Finland, 5.29 and 0.95 in Britain, 4.60 and 0.91 in Germany and 4.25 and 0.61 in Spain. The low proportion of money freely spent on buying education compared to public spending on force-feeding it to captive consumers is striking.

There is a wide enough consensus in Europe that public expenditure on education, on a rising trend in nearly every country, must go on rising and is never high enough. Most people believe that more spending means better education and do not see any clear link between their taxes and more public spending. Nobody feels the marginal cost of more education, and many do not realise that the marginal return, in terms of better educated young people, may be very little indeed. Except perhaps in the case of Finland where high expenditure goes hand in hand with Europe’s best average scholarly performance, there is no significant correlation between spending and educational results.

The sums involved are huge. Only “ill-care” (euphemistically and misleadingly called health-care, though its agenda is the treatment of illness rather than the preservation of health) absorbs a greater share of national incomes. The return on this vast outlay is poor and shows little or no improvement with time. Functional illiteracy among school-leavers in the state-run sector runs at around 15 per cent. Many countries, with France in the lead, forbid selective admission at secondary and at university entry level as inegalitarian (though some selection is taking place surreptitiously). The result is that in each class, a number of hard cases prevent the rest from learning and the teacher from teaching. British education is good at the top end, thanks in large part to the 160 grammar schools that were spared in the devastating postwar reforms to bring in equality of opportunity, and that practice selection, but below that level standards are abysmal. State schools fail not only to teach their conscripted pupils basic knowledge, but also fail to educate them to habits of regular work, discipline and civilised conduct.

In defence of the schools, it is said that parents no longer do their share of educating children as they used to do. This is undoubtedly true, but then taxpayers did not use to pay 5 per cent of national income to maintain schools in order that compulsory education should accomplish both what parents no longer do and what privately financed schools used to do in the past.

School attendance in most European countries is mandatory and free of charge from between 5 and 7 to 15 or 16 years, usually with a further two years that may be mandatory, optional or a part-time mixture of the two. In a recent speech Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to extend the general school-leaving age to 18, though it was not clear whether this would be mandatory. University education is still optional everywhere in Europe, but there is a tendency to transform it into a “right” the young “ought to” exercise and to have the general taxpayer bear most of the cost.

More and more, education is taking the form of a “non-excludable” public good that has the peculiarity that a certain age group is not only free, but actually compelled to consume it. Moreover, this age group tends to be extended as the school-leaving age is prolonged. This is done in the firm belief that it will do a deal of good both to the young personally and to the national economy as a whole, making the cost well worth bearing and the force-feeding justified. However, a suspicion is spreading that this belief is illusory and that the material and moral payback may in fact be nil or negative.

For more on international educational quality comparisons, listen to the EconTalk podcast Rick Hanushek on Educational Quality and Economic Growth.

Who, or what, is at fault? Everybody, and everything, is probably the right answer. One obvious structural fault springs, paradoxically, from the virtual shutting off of the normal producer-consumer conflict in the state sector. In private schools the producers, namely the teachers, must willy-nilly exert themselves to satisfy the customers, namely the pupils’ parents. In state schools, the customers are captive. They do not pay (or so it seems to them at the level of each particular school) and must either consume what is provided, or passively resist it. Whether they do one or the other, the jobs of the teachers are little affected. Teachers’ unions behave accordingly, and fight tooth and nail against attempts to inject some producer-consumer conflict and competitive effort into education by the use of school vouchers. In Europe, school vouchers have been and remain out of the question. Some teachers’ unions, especially in France, also combat and seek to restrict apprenticeship for being a form of “child labour” that would reduce school attendance. They just succeeded in reversing a government decision that would permit apprenticeship from the age of 14; the age limit is now back at 16.

However, the root cause of failure lies deeper than teacher indifference, left-leaning prejudice and bureaucracy. It lies in universal compulsory enrolment in a system that cannot educate under the same roof both the willing and the unwilling, the hopelessly dumb and the downright hostile. Probably no system can really do so, but if there is one that has a chance, it is one that demands only voluntary effort from the young and guides those unwilling or unable to make it, to channels that call for different kinds of endeavour and aptitudes. In one word, education as an obligation does not work, or at any rate does not work well enough to make it worth while. It needs gradually to be turned into a privilege provided only for those willing and able to draw from it all the benefit it offers, but withdrawn from those who abuse it or prove unable to use it.

The late James Coleman, an eminent Chicago sociologist, used to teach that it is good for children to be raised within mixed age groups and dangerous to have them grow up within same-age peer groups. For him, the small farmer family where young and old worked at their different tasks on the same farm, and the community of master and apprentices in the workshop, were the ideal educational environments. Adolescents thrown together in the school and “hanging out” together after school ran a high risk that too much of each other’s company would coarsen them and make them form gangs where outrageous behaviour earned them peer admiration.

This is perhaps the right juncture to remember the sinister story of compulsory social re-grouping on a wildlife reservation in East Africa. The elephant population was growing too dense. To relieve the pressure, substantial numbers of young elephants were captured and placed several hundred miles away in an area where only a few elephants lived. After a while game wardens in that area began to find corpses of rhinoceros crushed to death by unexplained blows or pressures. The mystery of these deaths was solved when gangs of up to a dozen young elephants were observed chasing rhinos at full gallop. Catching up with one, they overturned and stomped it to death. It was concluded that being forcibly taken out of their family environment and thrown together with their peers has turned them into coarse, wanton hooligans.

I will stop short of insinuating that force-feeding the young with education some of them are unwilling or unfit to assume, and extensions of the school-leaving age that divert many young people from timely apprenticeship and natural transition into working life, are turning them into replicas of rogue hooligan beasts. Things are not as bad as that, but very much worse than the advocates of ever more, ever longer and ever more expensive compulsory education keep on imagining. Their dream of turning out well-behaved and highly knowledgeable young people destined to have a better life than their parents, while by the same stroke creating a huge positive externality in the form of a “knowledge-based” super-productive economy (such as was set as the medium-term objective for the European Union at its 2003 Lisbon summit) is proving to be just that, a dream. Awake to reality, less paternalistic and less coercive means may be adopted, whose use runs into less resistance.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.