Matthew Lesh: Funding isn’t enough to boost education. The Government must be radical and promote microschools.

Matthew Lesh is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute.

The Covid-19 pandemic was immensely difficult for millions of parents and children who were forced into homeschooling. The exodus from the classroom has undoubtedly left many students educationally scarred.

Over two million school children did between zero and one hour of school work per day during lockdown. Education Policy Institute analysis found that primary school students were an average of 3.5 months behind in maths and 2.2 months in reading by March 2021 – with disadvantaged and state school students even further behind.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that an astronomical £350 billion in lost lifetime earnings because of reduced education time. Students also missed out on normal socialisation and extracurricular activities.

The debate about educational catch-up has largely focused on how much money the Government is willing to throw at the problem. Sir Kevan Collins resigned as education recovery commissioner after being unimpressed that the Government would “only” allocate £1.4 billion for a school catch-up plan. He wanted £15 billion. Why not £30 or 150 billion is unclear.

There is clearly some need for money to fund the likes of private tutoring for left behind students and perhaps even a longer school day. But the focus on money is extremely shallow.

A decade ago the Conservatives came to Government with a radical reform agenda to boost educational quality. They introduced free schools, reformed curriculums and improved teaching techniques. It was politically costly but it proved effective in boosting standards. The UK’s position in the gold-standard Pisa education rankings from the OECD substantially increased between 2009 and 2018 – from 25nd to 14th in reading and 28th to 18th in maths.

The pandemic once again presents the opportunity to rethink how schools operate, to further improve educational outcomes. A silver lining of homeschooling during lockdowns is that parents have been far more engaged in the education of their children – and, suffice it to say, not all have been unimpressed. While the situation has improved, it is far from perfect.

Many parents simply gritted their teeth, however, others banded together to form a ‘pandemic pod’ or microschool with around two to a dozen others. This allowed children to continue face-to-face education led by a professionally qualified teacher or capable lay educator. Microschools are often conducted from the home of one of the pupils, and therefore have basic facilities but, accordingly, low costs. Additional activities, like sports, music and yoga, are provided within the local community.

Microschools have gotten much attention in the United States but they also exist, and continue to do so, in the United Kingdom. Hove Micro-School was started in September 2020. “Mainstream schools no longer suit many children’s needs and home schooling can be overwhelming or simply impractical for families,” founder Rachael Ammari explains. Hove Micro-School has expanded from just a few children to over twenty in the last year. There is clearly a demand by parents for a more bespoke education in a smaller class size.

Microschools give parents and children greater choice, allowing the diverse preferences of parents and children. They are small and private, meaning the parents of children attending these schools are treated as valued customers. They can focus on what parents want the most, such as excellence in maths, science and languages.

The smallness and intimacy also requires parents to take a greater interest in their child’s education. The added competition can also be good for students in the existing state sector schools, who will be forced to raise their game or face the loss of students.

Importantly, microschools provide greater educational diversity, fostering innovation on a small scale, experimenting with new techniques and models that may be more suited to the way different children can learn. Compulsory education was first introduced in Britain in the 1880s to create a system of functional clerks for the Empire who could do basic routine tasks and follow orders.

Edwin G West’s 1965 book, Education and the State, explains how state education suppressed the emerging private, voluntary and competitive efforts supported by families, churches and philanthropists. Almost all schools revolve around a stringent 19th century model of children sitting in rows in front of a teacher at the front, similar to workers in a factory. Microschools present the opportunity to return to a more competitive and innovative educational system.

The Adam Smith Institute’s latest report, School’s Out: How microschools boost educational choice and quality, explains how the Government can embrace microschools to address post-Covid educational disadvantage.

In practice this means not strangling these smaller schools in red tape – that is, reforming the regulatory system to create a new category of schools between heavily regulated large independent schools and the minimal rules for homeschooling.

This could take the form of a ‘schools sandbox,’ modelled on the Financial Conduct Authority’s regulatory sandbox, to allow educational entrepreneurs to experiment with a diverse array of new arrangements for schooling in a light-touch regulatory environment.

The Government could also make microschools a more viable financial option for lower income parents by providing educational vouchers for any school type – equal to the average per-student cost of supplying a state education, or about £6,000 a year for secondary pupils.

Microschools may be small but they could have a big impact.

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Author: Matthew Lesh


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