Professor EG West

Who was  he? Certainly no fan of Government interference in education


There is an EG West Centre at Newcastle University headed by Professor James Tooley, who will be known to most as a champion of the private sectors role in education, particularly in the developing world.

But who is EG West? Professor EG West died in 2001, having established a considerable reputation in his chosen area of education.  Professor West didn’t think much of Governments interfering in education. Most people now believe that the Government has a right to intervene in education. Not West. Or rather, he thought, they should have a very limited role. His main book ‘Education and the State’ explains why. The Sunday Times once described Education and the State as ‘perhaps the most important work written on the subject this century’ (20th)

His main propositions were:

Historically, the educational needs of almost everyone, including the poor, were met without the state in England and Wales and the USA. West argued that, prior to the major state involvement in education in England & Wales in 1870, school attendance rates and literacy rates were well above 90 per cent. State intervention was not required to ensure almost universal attendance and literacy. When government got involved with education, it was ‘as if it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping’.

The demand for imposing state-education was made by elite opinion formers on very dubious grounds. State involvement crowded out all the private provision that was catering very well for the educational needs of the poor and in the process in effect  wrested control and responsibility away from parents.

Opinion formers thought they could use government to impose their educational ideas and ideals – but government intervention is not benign in the ways often supposed. West believed ‘‘benevolent government does not exist. The political machinery is …, in fact, largely … operated by interest groups, vote-maximising politicians and self-seeking bureaucracies’.  He believed that the needs of the children of a small minority of “irresponsible” parents may be met more efficiently if the paternalistic powers of government were concentrated on them, and not diffused over the wide areas where they are not needed.’ Universal compulsion, he argued, ‘will have indirect costs that are so severe as to outweigh the benefits’

There are practical methods by which the education can be reclaimed from the state.  If education is reclaimed from the state, we should also decouple education and schooling. James Tooley says that ‘West’s position leads to some-thing even more radical than the educational voucher. His ideas imply the decoupling of the conflation that often occurs between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ – for it is the former, not the latter, which is of greatest importance. Many people view the Victorian education system through the prism of Dickens writing. But West pointed out that this was a time of huge innovation and progress in education. There were of course some outstanding private schools with reformist Headmasters. But there were also ‘ the adult education movement, the mutual improvement societies, the literary and philosophical institutes, the mechanics’ institutes, … the Owenite halls of science’ and ‘freelance lecturers who travelled the towns and stimulated self-study among the poor’, as well as the Sunday schools.’  In short, there was a fluid, flexible, heterogeneous and competitive educational scenario of the pre-1870s’ is what we should be looking for in educational reform today

West undertook theoretical and practical research on a range of ‘Market Solutions in Education’. Significantly, as James Tooley has pointed  out, West shows how the idea for educational vouchers and tax credits can be traced back not just  to economists such as Milton Friedman, as is commonly argued, but to much earlier  social reformers  such as Thomas Paine, (The Rights of Man) who had such an influence on American Revolutionary thought.

West conducted research for the World Bank on vouchers, looking first at their theory, and then the practice from a variety of countries.  He outlined voucher policies that have been implemented in countries such as Bangladesh, Chile, Colombia and Lesotho, as well as the USA.  Did he upset other intellectuals and the prevailing intellectual climate? Is the Pope Catholic? A. H. (‘Chelly’) Halsey, of Nuffield College, Oxford, said: ‘Of all the verbal rubbish scattered about by the Institute of Economic Affairs, ‘this book is so far the most pernicious.’

He certainly provoked debate. But  he also   challenged the  cosy  assumption that Government interventions in education  are   necessarily always a   good thing.  Politicians and their officials  usually with the best of motives    can,  and  rather too often do , get in  very wrong  . Taxpayers money is often wasted  in service of short term political agendas or producer interests.   And we  would do well to remember that .


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