Funding Education: A review of Freeing the Circling Stars by Christopher Houghton Budd (review by Arthur Edwards)

Freeing the Circling Stars by Christopher Houghton Budd

A review January 24, 2011 by Arthur Edwards

Paying the Piper, Not Calling the Tune

In the preface to Freeing the Circling Stars, Christopher Houghton Budd makes the radical contention that those who fund education should not thereby also determine its content. In his view, the function of finance is merely to provide the `chalice' for pedagogy, and while education must needs be `paid for', it should not however be `bought'. Such a premise will provoke questions: For example, how is one to steer between the Scylla of state and the Charybdis* of private funding? Who, if not the piper, should call the tune? What is the proper relationship of finance to education?
This book is a handbook for those wishing to travel the path into a landscape in which education is provided, not with a backward look at those who put the money in the teachers' hands, but for the benefit of the children, enabling them to grow together into adults capable of freely realizing their future. The book's title, indicates the crucial role of the teacher in enabling children to meet one another through their schooling, in a way that is not determined through economic considerations but out of the logic of life's circumstances.

Arguing from first principles, Christopher Houghton Budd examines educational financing and describes the path that must be taken if "... a powerful ideal is to become a concrete practicality." Teachers taking responsibility for running education must do so right into its financial aspect. The effect of this would be that teachers would cease to be mere functionaries, whether of government ministers or wealthy parents and they would have their own hands on the financial reins. Through addressing the financial questions, the issues of curriculum choice, pedagogical autonomy and social inclusion can also be constructively addressed.

The borderlines of the current crisis are well known - state funded education comes with strings attached which deaden cultural freedom; privately funded education tends either to impoverish the teachers (and the fabric of the school) or to pander to the concerns of those who can afford to make their wishes count. Christopher Houghton Budd advocates pre-funded education as a way of releasing education from its financial determination. Effectively this means creating channels by which finance can flow into education without influencing its content. Pre-funded education allows the teachers to determine the pedagogical content of the curricula and the children to attend schools based on their parents' choice, but not on their financial situation. If teachers were to organize themselves on an independent, professional basis to attract such funding to their schools, they would find themselves freed from both parental and governmental `customers'. In order to bring this about they would need structures in place that enable them to invoice their costs realistically (i.e. paying themselves properly), while at the same time remaining in the driving seat. The question of to whom such an invoice should be sent is of course a crucial one, but the fact that the invoice exists and must be paid for is indisputable. The financial amount of the invoice is secondary.

Yet just here there is a threshold, which must indeed be crossed, if the situation of contemporary education is to improve. One cannot expect to understand the economics of educational provision at the level of sophistication needed only to understand the economics of buying bread. Teachers may need to take not only themselves, but also effectively the whole of society across this threshold with them if they are to ensure that the question of financing education is sufficiently met. For the issue of education affects the whole of society, and correspondingly, society, in its attitude to education, allows for what it knows: for better or worse. If the change does come from educators, the effect on society will, in turn, allow for further change, but left to itself society will tend only to replicate the thoughts and institutions with which it is familiar, however inadequate. The universal benefit brought by education is sometimes alluded to by pointing out that the sun, when it shines, does not only shine on one man; perhaps one should also point out that, when it rains, everyone gets wet. The financing of education must not be made to depend on un-thought conventions. True practicality begins with clear thinking. Pioneering examples prepare the way for rational strategies. One must find the courage to act and thereby allow the thought implicit in one's actions to become visible to others. To blame policy-makers for their unwillingness to consider what to them is unfamiliar is a lame excuse. The responsibility lies with those who do not first need to see an example, but are able to grasp the idea in thought. Public opinion, if it is to follow, will do so only after the event.

What for one person is a challenging threshold, is a stumbling block for the next. In order to change a situation one must develop the capacity to rethink it, to separate what is pertinent from what is not. Only then can one countenance a new perspective. To think the impossible is the necessary preliminary to enacting it. For some, the practicability of pre-funding education may be that very stumbling block, while for others the fact one can think it through should serve as the necessary stimulus to make it happen.

Christopher Houghton Budd's book is not so much a how-to guide, but a grounding in education, giving both historical context and ideal content. The book opens with the view of philosopher John Stuart Mill proposing the idea that the state should require education without taking it upon itself to direct it. He then shows that to understand the financing of education one must realize that education is `the great consumer' but consumption is no less a thing than production. Economics depends on the balance of one with the other. Although education consumes resources, it creates resourcefulness, which is the most important factor in production. The fact that these ideas are not sufficiently present in the world does not invalidate them, nor does the fact that society at large fails to embrace them, take away the onus of responsibility from those who recognize their logic.

The issues surrounding the relationship of finance to education are complex. Dr. Houghton Budd uses the first section of the book to bring clarity into the thinking around the debate, he then goes on to describe what he understands as an archetypal model of a pre-funded school, and finally he outlines structures and strategies for the implementation of such a model.

As a practical guide this book offers some help in sketching out what a pre-funded school would look like. The relationship between the functions of teacher, administrator, fund-raiser, promoter and property manager is drawn out. Financial flows are described between those functions and the need for differentiated budgets is shown. A strategy for establishing a revenue fund is described and the potential benefits of skillfully managing increasing property values is outlined.

Although Dr. Houghton Budd, in his epilogue, laments the absence of citable examples of this approach, just such a one was given earlier this year on national radio in the UK. A small primary school, Peaslake in Surrey, offers pre-funded education, which is independent of state subsidy and free to those who attend. The school was established on a financially independent basis because the teachers wished to work free from state interference, although they do choose to follow the national curriculum. It began as a school in someone's living room and was able to grow through dedicated fund-raising and local support. Many people living nearby pay voluntary monthly subscriptions to enable the school to stay open, not because they are parents (most aren't) but because they recognize the benefit that the school brings.

One theme, which is hinted at, but not really developed (perhaps because it is a country specific one), is the issue of double taxation. Parents paying fees are effectively paying an education tax twice over. A strong argument could surely be made that donations to revenue funds (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether these are to be classified as gifts or fees) ought to be tax-deductible items. This issue might be the chink that opens apart the whole debate at a societal level.

It is to be hoped that the crisis facing independent and state schools alike should be sufficient cause to invest in this approach, which, seemingly, lacks only our will to implement it. This is easily said, yet in bringing our wills to expression we face our greatest challenge. This book will not by itself change anything, but it does at least provide key thoughts which have, apparently, until now been missing from the debate and perhaps the presence of such thoughts will enable teachers to better chart the waters that lie ahead.

* Scylla and Charybdis: Two dangers or extremes such that one can be avoided only by approaching the other. These were names of a monster and a whirlpool in Greek mythology. (The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 1992)

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