The Wiki Man

Q: What is a good school? A: One that everybody else likes

With humanity’s love of collective consensus, reputation can often count for more than reality

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

A few months ago I received a call from someone running a small private school near New York. They believed their school was objectively better than a larger, more famous establishment nearby, but had more difficulty attracting pupils. What should they do?

This is not easy. You see, however skilled your teachers are, what really makes a good school is often simply having a reputation for being good. When parents choose a school for their children, much as they pretend otherwise, they are not really choosing a school so much as buying a peer group for their offspring (and, to some extent, for themselves).

Yes, I know everyone talks about facilities and teacher-pupil ratios and so on when they talk about schools, but this is largely bullshit to maintain the pretence of rational objectivity. (Trust me, once you follow David Ogilvy’s dictum that ‘people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say’, understanding human behaviour becomes much easier.) Instinctively, people choose schools using the same social epistemology they use to choose pubs: it doesn’t matter how good the beer is if you don’t like the clientele.

This peer-group effect means that however hard you work to improve your school, people may still not choose to send their children to you, instead preferring a school they think other people think is better. The technical term for this second-order selection is a ‘Keynesian beauty contest’ and it explains how public schools and universities preserve their relative prestige for centuries. The businesses most similar to schools and universities in this respect are luxury fashion brands, where the same Keynesian feedback loop operates. It doesn’t matter which brand of sunglasses you prefer — what matters is whether other people admire them. Since collective consensus is less volatile than individual judgment, fashionable brands enjoy a kind of monopoly power. Seen this way, Harvard or Eton no more deserve charitable status than Chanel or Ray-Ban.

Interestingly, it took a certified genius to crack this problem. When (now Sir) Christopher Zeeman founded the mathematics department at the University of Warwick in the 1960s, his dilemma was this: how do you compete with Oxford or Cambridge?

His solution was to make his first six academic appointments all from his own narrow field of topology. Since Zeeman himself was perhaps the world’s pre-eminent geometric topologist, he was able to attract six of its best ten practitioners to join him. He later hired rock stars from the fields of algebra and analysis and repeated the same trick. Fifty years on, Warwick still has a stellar reputation for mathematics.

As Zeeman understood, the way to compete against entrenched businesses is by obliquely specialising. Apple never defeated Microsoft on the desktop; it created a new playing field upon which it could win. Similarly, GoPro didn’t tackle Canon and Nikon on a wide front; they went narrow and oblique. The problem with schools — unlike cameras and iPods (and even departments of mathematics) — is that a monolithic exam system prevents schools from doing anything radical. All of them (music schools excepted) must compete on exactly the same turf, meaning that no real innovation can occur. The assumed need for objective comparison stifles variety. The government claims to want a more varied educational system, yet imposes uniform metrics which make this impossible. Perhaps there is no answer to my New York caller except: ‘Wait a couple of centuries and hope.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • davidshort10

    I remember Warwick having a very smart reputation when I was doing my UCCA application in the 70s and remember lingering over its brochure (yes, universities had them) late at night in bed but tradition go the better of me over marketing. I applied only to four ‘proper’ northern universities and the LSE. I went to the LSE. If i knew what I know now, I would have made the effort to go to Oxford. Where are Warwick graduates now? Sussex was smart in those days too and, even though I find it odd now, so was Lancaster……Paisley of course never was, and never will be.

  • victor67

    I think this is right .There is a sense of wanting our children to associate with those who look ,think and speak like we do.
    What do you think white flight from London to the home counties is about.

  • Hayek was right

    Not sure Go Pro a good example given it appears to have saturated its narrow niche, missing last Q earnings forecast and making redundancies

  • Sue Smith

    A good school is more than just educational outcomes; it’s about kids feeling valued, safe, learning social skills, sporting and other activities. And it’s about consistency in the teaching profession. Discipline and actually being in front of the classroom. My grandson has just finished Kindergarten in a state school in Australia and he had no less than 4 teachers this year!! That’s totally unacceptable. Then the school spent a week of pure propaganda, called ‘NAIDOC Week’ – to do with indigenous people and ‘celebrating’ their ‘achievements’. Alright so far? He came home with a sheet to be coloured in. It was of aboriginal people sitting in a bus, waving. The bus carried signs on its side, “constitutional recognition”, “racism”, “discrimination”, “land rights”, “Mabo” (a landmark case on aboriginal land rights in this country) and other such agitprop worthy of the politburo. I was furious and so was my son – the boy’s father.

    I wanted to hit people!!!!