Pay As You Learn

It’s the unspoken rule of state education: if you want your kids to do well, you’ve got to pay for private tutors. Which is fine for the well-off middle class, but what about those who can’t afford to?

Jenni Russell writes in today’s Guardian about the hidden system of private tuition that is underpinning the apparent success of many state schools, especially in London.

This sounds like a classic “Tragedy of the Commons” systems archetype – each person acting for their own perceived benefit actually contributes to the shared resource being depleted for all – the common resource is treated as inexhaustible until the whole system fails. I suspect that in this case the scenario is arising from a combination of parents wanting the best education for their children, coupled with a feeling that they cannot influence the quality of the state system, but they can (if they have the resources) directly influence the development of their child through application of private tutoring.

Before we can identify how we could change this we need to look at other systems issues – in fact in this case there appears to another archetype operating – “Success to the Successful”. This one is arising from the UK Government’s own school league table system, where in the name of improved educational standards, the exam results of schools are published in public league tables. Inevitably there is competition to secure places at the best-performing schools, a competition that is biased towards middle-class families that know how to “work the system”. As Russell explains in her article, once the child is at the school then pressure to keep up with peers leads to an increased liklihood of tutoring being used, which in turn boosts the exam results of the school, further fuelling the reinforcing loops of this system archetype. The result is that schools are being polarised between very (apparently) successful and very low-achieving. Inevitably the latter are also becoming “sinks” for economically disadvantaged groups of the population

Russell suggests one way to start to break these loops – make it compulsory for parents to report tutoring and for these figures to be published alongside the school exam results. That will of course be a start, beyond that will require a public debate that once again revisits the private-versus-public divide in our politics.

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