The education policies of the Conservative/LibDem coalition government are remarkably bold, and recent ministerial assertions that the purpose of education is to promote social mobility need scrutiny. The idea sounds plausible, but it conceals a flawed proposition – that public education is provided not as a good in itself, but merely to prepare students for a specific end: in this case, to advance in society. This instrumental view of schooling is classic Tory thinking, going back to 1862 when Robert Lowe introduced the “Revised Code” for elementary education based on payment by results, with the principle that “If education is not cheap it should be efficient: and if it is not efficient it should be cheap.” The “efficient” aim was to increase mill-owners’ profits by training workers to read, write and do sums – a far cry from education as personal development.
In the 1880s, London board schools aspired to teach pupils beyond the school leaving age. The Tories put an end to that: eventually, county secondary schools were introduced in 1904, but only for abler pupils. When war was declared ten years later, the army was appalled at the low standard of education evident in new recruits. The Germans, on the other hand, were able to delegate considerable responsibilities to their well-educated NCOs, who could even replace injured officers in the field; this was a huge tactical advantage. It was the same story in 1940. Not only were British conscripts woefully under-educated, many were undernourished from working-class poverty under a succession of Tory governments. American troops, however, had enjoyed a broad general education in their public high schools. And at the end of the war, all were offered free university places: Congress recognised education as a good in its own right. As John Dewey had put it, education has no end but itself: to be educated is to learn how to flourish as a person. And so it turned out: the “G.I. Bill” brought America huge economic benefits in the post-war years.
In England, education has generally been seen in instrumental terms – sometimes for social advancement, more recently to bring economic advantage for the country. But it is provided selectively: smart students must be given special treatment, which would be wasted on the less able. Hence the invention of county grammar schools, so prominent in Tory thinking even though their record was not impressive. Sixth forms were small, and the curriculum was narrowly focused. When comprehensive schools became inevitable, Conservative politicians argued that able pupils must be given their own separate ability stream. Even in 1997, when New Labour took office, one of its first acts was to make streaming mandatory under the provisions of the ill-conceived 1988 Education Act – despite evidence, even then, that setting and streaming were counter productive. Recent research by the OECD confirms that the practice “exacerbates differences in learning between students” (Independent, 10 February 2012).
More recently, the introduction by New Labour of “academies” alongside comprehensive schools has seriously undermined the European notion of the common school. Now the Tory-led coalition government has seized the academy concept ,and is spending public money to foster a hierarchy of schools controlled by central government. The grammar school will soon be alive and well inside an academy. An infinitely better approach prevails in Finland, which has developed a system of community schools each capable of deploying a variety of learning strategies across the ability range – the kind of approach advocated in the slow school. Not only is this socially cohesive: it is cheaper and works better, with no setting, no OFSTED, and no examinations until age 18. The emphasis is on the high professional status of teachers who devise their own curriculum within broad government outlines. When education is seen as a good in itself, there is a sense of a common inheritance, and economic success follows as a natural consequence, Everybody wins.