Professor James Tooley believes there is "no justification for state intervention in education, not in terms of provision, funding or regulation". Education, he argues in this engaging, well written and entirely absurd book, was much better before 1870, when almost the only education available was what you paid for yourself. But then, it seems, dangerous Stalinists such as John Stuart Mill emerged to persuade people that the poor shouldn't have to starve themselves to provide education for their children. It's been downhill ever since.
Tooley's prescription for putting it all right is summed up in one of those handy three-word soundbites of the sort that sum up something pious and reactionary, such as the sign I once saw carved into a Moroccan hill: "God, fatherland, family." Tooley calls his version the three Fs: "Freedom, family, philanthropy." Now, I'm as much in favour of freedom and the family as anyone, but I always suspect them in the mouths of right-wing ideologues, to whom "freedom" usually means the freedom of the rich to bully the poor; and "family" is no more than a buzzword enabling conservatives to sneer at people with unconventional lifestyles.
I'm not, however, at all in favour of philanthropy. If I had my way, every collecting tin in Britain would be burned, and the gibbering glitterati who prance on our television screens on Red Nose Days would be drowned in their own copious froth. Charity, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "is always apt to be accompanied by a certain complacency and condescension on the part of the benefactor; and by an expectation of gratitude from the recipient". The rich, he added, should "pay the taxes. These were the true charity, impartial and impersonal, cumbering none with obligation, helping all."
The young Clement Attlee wrote: "A right established by law, such as that to an old-age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, depending on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice." Attlee once met a clergyman, handing out food in the East End of London, who said that the porridge given to workhouse children should always be burnt, so as not to encourage idleness and indigence. That's exactly the sort of philanthropy Professor Tooley has in mind. In his ideal state, most people would pay for their children's education. For those who need help, charitable money would be raised and "administered with discretion and discernment".
Along the way to these appalling conclusions, Tooley has interesting things to say about education, and says them well. He has a proper contempt for government league tables; and it's a useful corrective to our more paternalistic educators to be reminded that children spend only 15 per cent of their time in school - most of their understanding of the world is acquired elsewhere, and schools cannot and should not be social services departments. He is right, too, to say that our present Education Secretary is producing a fake market in education, with all the disadvantages of the market and none of the advantages.
The book is spoiled by Tooley's rather sly habit of ridiculing his opponents for views they do not hold. His satisfaction in demolishing the argument "that parental choice will undermine equity and so should be regulated against", for example, is quite unaffected by the truth that no one has argued anything so silly.