What on earth are state schools doing to our young people? Having endured 11 years of compulsory schooling, about seven million adults in England cannot find the right page for a plumber in the Yellow Pages. For numeracy the figures are even worse - with an incredible 40% of all adults having numeracy skills lower than that expected for 11-year-olds.
The magnitude of the problem requires a radical solution. The Conservatives' free schools policy promises two things schools desperately need in order to raise standards and extend access. First, it promises more money to the schools themselves. But rather than crippling the economy with extra taxation, the free schools policy would slim down central and local education government to provide schools with an average of£540 per pupil.
This seems about right. In Sheffield, for example, the education department has an annual budget of£2,489 per pupil, but it delegates only£2,047 per pupil to schools. So an average of£440 per pupil is being kept back by the education department for its own purposes. I estimate that the DfEE itself holds back roughly£160 per pupil, to spend on its own ideas of what schools need.
Throw these figures together, keeping something back for central administration, and schools in Sheffield could easily have the extra funds the Conservatives wish to see returned to them. These sums are considerable - for a typical inner-city secondary school with a thousand pupils, there is an extra£0.5m or so just waiting to be used more effectively to promote educational standards.
Schools liberated from local departmental and DfEE control can explore the arrangements that suit them best. Maybe some such schools will decide a fierce independence is what suits them, and there is nothing wrong with that. Others may look favourably on models such as the one used by the Edison schools in the USA - where an education company runs a head office, invests in research and development, develops curriculums and teaching methods, and makes contracts with suppliers that pass on considerable savings to schools.
Education companies are lean, competing organisations that have to raise standards in order to survive in an extremely competitive market. In contrast, some education departments are bloated, politicised organisations able to flourish even when they preside over mediocrity.
So what could free schools decide to do? They could join together to form Edison-type companies, seeking investors to fund their educational ambitions.
In the USA, Edison currently has 108 schools, with 57,000 students. In school districts, 29% of available funding goes on administration while in Edison schools it is only 6%.
Edison typically invests about£1m in every school it takes over, in terms of a research-based academic curriculum, teacher education and technology. Famously, it puts a networked computer in the home of every child above third grade, and offers stock options to all staff, from the janitor to the principal.
The majority - 65% - of Edison students are eligible for free school meals, and
the largest group of students is African-American. To the disappointment of its critics, despite serving a disadvantaged population, the latest figures show the great majority of classes have made significant gains, over and above what would be expected of the pupils.
-James Tooley, professor of education policy, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.