In 1837, Chartist, William Lovett, had this to say: 

“Possessors of wealth ... still consider education as their own prerogative, or a boon to be sparingly conferred upon the multitude instead of a universal instrument for advancing the dignity of man and for gladdening his existence.” 


Reflections on progress !


In 1945 something magical happened, a government arrived and avowed that it was important to educate the whole population rather than just a small elite and then proceeded to make special selective arrangements for the small elite. The Attlee government implemented Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which provided secondary education for all and made education a pillar of the welfare state. A tripartite school system was introduced based on dubious ideas about the genetics of intelligence. In reality this turned out to be a bipartite system of grammar and secondary modern schools. Technical schools were supposed to be one prong of the tripartite system but both Labour and Tory governments failed to provide the necessary financial support for technical schools. In the early post-war years money was in short supply and resourcing was skewed in favour of the grammar schools, leaving secondary modern schools in every sense second best. The 11+ test would be used to decide who would be allowed to attend the grammar schools. This test was totally inadequate as a selection tool but it served its purpose; it made it appear as if some kind of competition was in play, the game was rigged.

Labour had a once in a lifetime opportunity to create an education system for the common good. The term common good refers to the idea that education performs two functions; it produces citizens able to make a positive contribution to society and enables individuals to live well and flourish as human beings. That never happened because Attlee and his chums were unable to free themselves mentally from the privileges of their own upbringing, the influence of the church, private sector and a selection model based on the management of a soon to disappear Empire. The upshot, a lacklustre education system focussed on producing the required number of managers, providing a child minding service and readying the masses for the world of machine minding and hardly skilled work.


Labour, out of office in 1952, abandoned the tripartite system and started telling the world that comprehensive schools were a much better idea. Tory opposition to the rise of comprehensives was intense, born out of fear that the sacred cow of selection would be swallowed up by the comprehensive movement - where then would their offspring find refuge from the children of a cynical working class. The Tory party were mentally anchored in the 1930s, they failed to raise the school leaving age to 16, and for a brief moment considered turning back the clock to a pre-war leaving age of 14. They also failed to allow the secondary moderns to engage children in the GCE exams process. Then towards the end of the 1950s it finally dawned on the policy makers that too few children were staying on at school and going on to higher education. A revolution was taking place, they opened up the exams process, broadened access to higher education and even saw some merit in allowing some comprehensive experimentation. The failure of the technical schools idea was acknowledged and consigned to the ‘smart ideas and good intentions’ cupboard but the secondary moderns began to receive a larger slice of the cake, that is, for new school buildings and better qualified teachers. By slow degrees much of the selective bias of the 1944 initial endowment was thrown off, school resourcing became more equal, social mobility improved with increased employment opportunities for the working class and the exams system was opened up to a much wider participation. And for a brief moment progress is driven on by Wilson’s Labour government. A common educational experience begins to emerge. As ever the policy makers made a mess of things, Labour instead of telling all schools to convert to comprehensives simply “requested” that schools consider the idea. This slowed down the transition and it was left to Mrs Thatcher as education secretary under Ted Heath to move the project on. However, Labour’s efforts in further education had a big impact. The arrival of the polytechnics and the Open University opened up new routes into higher education for those earlier denied opportunities to proceed their educations. 

Then, in the 1970s, education is transformed from a ‘common good’ to an item on a list of economic priorities. Education was not a priority for Heath and as the economy dipped into recession, following the oil shock, it became even less so. Global pressures begin to determine the priorities, competition between states dictate a new direction for education. Notions of welfare are replaced by market considerations, social considerations are replaced by empowerment through individual striving, personal responsibility would henceforth cater for future development - and free school milk would play no part in that development! This was a return to the situation prevailing in the late 19th century, when free market individualism and self-help strangled social development. The role of public services would be reduced, deemed unaffordable, the public sector would be held to economic account and schools would not be exempt from the analysis.


The Reformation

The 1980s saw the publication of school league tables that damned the development of education as a common good, because the market model on which they were based insisted on an acquisitive mindset among the schools’ customers, turning them into committed consumers. Children would be tested into the submission of believing that education was equivalent to a large collection of certificates. The measure of success henceforward would be the amount of goods acquired, not living life well and flourishing as human beings. 
The Tories introduced a market model to education, accompanied by business waffle about choice, diversity, quality assurance, performance management, accountability, regulation, and competition - all this, and more, they asserted would raise school standards.

Meanwhile they looked the other way while the school estate fell into further disrepair. They opened the door to privatised fast-food companies, reduced nutritional standards in schools and did nothing about the advertisers of fast food muck.

They introduced the National Curriculum, the biggest time wasting moment in education history, together with Key Stage testing and prescribed Programmes of Study. The impact of these so-called ‘reforms’ have never been adequately evaluated, in terms of raising standards. More importantly little concern was sounded over the fact that these reforms would be applied to primary and secondary sectors alike, as if it was understood that the new curriculum was suitable for all ages. Well, at least they hoped it would be. After all, the progress and pace through the Key Stages was finely turned, nay engineered, to match the developmental grasp of each child on their journey through school. Well, at least we hope that some thought was given to the cognitive development of the child and its mental capability as it matures and grows. That at least a nod was given to the latest research into child development and that children would not be asked to master concepts beyond their grasp.

However, we know even less about how much thought was given to how primary teachers would deal with up to ten subjects. For these teachers the National Curriculum was not so much a journey of exploration as a conveyor belt, with no alternative routes on offer, this was a linear specification, with the pace controlled by decision makers beyond the classroom. If the pace was too fast for some, they will be left behind. If too many are left behind, schools and teachers will be deemed as failing, for not running fast enough to keep up with the conveyor belt. And just to ensure that everyone was doing their best, Ofsted was introduced to report on school performance. Later, New Labour would refine and embed Performance Management to constantly monitor teacher performance.

The Tories introduced the GCSE, this was either a colossal mistake or part of a cunning plan to ensure that more children stayed on at school post-16. Ending the GCE and CSE sent the exams industry into disarray. When the exams industry gathered its composure, a vast number of exams came about with differentiated papers, i.e, foundation, intermediate and higher. No one was fooled by this nonsense, this was a continuation of internal selection between CSE and GCE by other means. The fly in the ointment was the introduction of coursework, the most renowned of statisticians would struggle to find some equivalence between the old and the new exams. We do know that more children were achieving the highest exam results but we do not know whether that was the result of the market reforms or parents who were good at coursework. We will never know what formula John Major used to decide that coursework should amount to 20% of an exam. Why not 10% or 15%, no one knows. We do know that every August the newspapers said the exam system had been dumbed down, enabling a greater number of children to progress to A-Levels and further education. The GCE and CSE combination would never have achieved the growth of higher education that the Tories were seeking, it was almost as if the press had missed the purpose of the easier exams.

By the time New Labour arrived on the scene, after 18 years of the Tory Reformation, education is unrecognisable from the days of old Labour’s comprehensive egalitarian pipe dream but everything that Callaghan dared to dream in the mid-70s at Ruskin College had come to pass. Competition between schools has been introduced via published league tables, efficiency imposed by a National Curriculum and control ensured by a national inspectorate and teachers reduced to technicians, managing inputs and outputs. Selection was returned and the private sector was invited to drink ever deeper from the social trough through the academies programme.


New Labour

New Labour picked up and ran with everything the previous Tory government put in place and they ensured that no more grammars would appear to interfere with their own selective schemes by banning new grammars in 1998. The policies of New Labour did not produce self-actualising individuals, all it ever produced was certificate collectors and, of course, indebted consumers. Blair said his top priority was education, he was going to develop a ‘learning society’. To achieve this ambition his goal was to have 50% of young people going on to university but he never concerned himself that the increasing numbers entering higher education came from middle-class, higher income households. Blair convinced himself that Faith Schools provided models of good practice and preceded to set up many more. This was a case of the structure determining educational standards. 

New Labour arrived on the scene telling the world that it was standards not structures that were important in education. It did not matter what type of school was attended, everything should be focussed on how education was being done. Then, some back room guru came up with the idea of nurturing structures and by magic, structures became ascendent, this led to Blair’s fascination with ‘specialist schools’. These schools were allowed to select up to 10% (supposedly selected by aptitude) of their intake and so the comprehensive principle, if it ever existed, came to an end. Deep irony, it was past Labour governments that forced schools to become comprehensives, not that New Labour had much in common with the party’s past. During the Blair years, some 3000 schools had become specialist, that was 88% of state maintained secondary schools. Also, part of Blair’s master plan was the academies programme, involving money grubbers, cutting local authorities out of the picture and encouraging the return of selection. And as an incentive, sponsors were offered a new deal, if they funded more than three schools, their ‘buy in’ would be reduced - this led to the rise of ‘academy chains’. However, the sponsors were not good at keeping to their financial commitments; the education department preferred to overlook this. New Labour’s time in office was characterised by a stream of initiatives that came to a dead end without achieving improvement. Recall, it was Blair who abandoned standards in favour of structures.


Five years of Coalition between the Tories and Liberal Democrats saw a quickening of the structural changes to the school system. At the end of their term of office, half of all secondary schools had become academies, and the new Free Schools numbered the hundreds. University fees had been tripled and the Further Education sector had been run down by underfunding. The school leaving age was raised to 18 and young people were reassured that apprenticeships would be available for all. Cameron and Co. picked up New Labour’s academies scheme and turned it into the holy grail, in reality it was just a cover story for the failure of the decision makers. And with breathtaking arrogance the decision makers were saying to parents, if you don’t like the mess we have made of things, set up your own Free School. The latter being championed by right-wing political hacks who used every opportunity to disinter nonsense from the 1970’s Black Papers about the damage caused to children by progressive education. This was simply an acknowledgement that they lacked confidence in their belief in the merits of traditional fact based learning. Beating up the straw man of past mistakes distracts us marvellously from viewing Free Schools as just another way for the middle class to protect its limited social privileges.


Tories in charge

In 2015 the Tories took full control, the zealot Gove was gone but his replacement Nicky Morgan turned out to be equally zealous. There was no sign yet of the notion of education as a common good, and education for its own sake was still the preserve of those who could afford it.

All policies indicated that we were still stuck in improving human capital mode. However, our efforts would seem to indicate that we are either not very good at improving our human capital or talk of improvement may be no more than an expression of a hope to fill a policy vacuum. Evidence suggests that we are not doing very well on the skills front, when we need to have Americans build our planes, the Japanese build our trains and the French build our nuclear power stations. Admittedly, we are good at making cars, for foreign owners.

There appears to be an element of delusion going on at the level of a policy that espouses up-skilling but does not provide the infrastructure to enable that to happen. Consider for instance that from 2015 Design and Technology was only compulsory from 5 to 14. Where is the incentive for teachers to follow a career in D&T teaching with no progression beyond the end of Year 9? And consider the current sorry excuse for apprenticeship schemes that the Tory government seems to think so marvellous. Once an apprenticeship would mean 3 or 4 years training backed up by some kind of college placement, today’s version is altogether different. Today an apprenticeship can add up to no more than a few weeks working on below minimum wages, any training amounts to no more than staff induction. Children taking GCSEs and A Levels at best may be able to write a half-decent essay and then what? They will be told by the Confederation of British Industry and the British Chambers of Commerce that they are not ready for the world of work. In a sense it is laughable that two organisations that sat on their hands whilst British industry was being destroyed to complain that schools are not supplying the quality of labour they demand. However, the delusion here is not owned exclusively by the the employers’ organisations, schools also have a share. What on earth do schools imagine they are doing, except swimming like dead fish with the current. The current flow finds schools charged with closing the attainment gap, promoting wellbeing, checking for obesity and terrorists, enhancing employability, encouraging social cohesion and social mobility and as time allows, teaching children their times tables. However, in 2016 there were signs that teachers had finally and belatedly started to swim against the stream, railing against the government’s plans to academise all state schools and the pointless testing of the youngest children. 



Mrs May thinks that we need more grammars and selective faith schools to drive up academic standards and improve social mobility by helping a few poor children to pursue a classical education. The nation does not need anymore academics, our burger joints are full of academics all vying to become employee of the week. What we need is bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, etc. We need an adequately funded post-16 training sector that is capable of providing for the needs of the children who are not university bound. The current government is set to introduce a new skills plan for children beyond GCSEs. The whole of vocational education is set to be overhauled, children will be expected to choose an academic or training route post-16. This is set happen by 2019 and the heroic assumption is that schools and colleges will be ready for the challenge of taking on new courses and that the funding for the scheme will match its aspirations.

We do not need any more grammar schools, we already have thousands of academies, run by trusts, headed up by merchant bankers, carpet entrepreneurs and owners of abattoirs, raising standards across the land and closing the attainment gap between the haves and have-nots. Well, that is the version of events that the DfE peddles. No matter, mass academy conversion will not transform our lack lustre education performance in international tests. The only way to out perform the Chinese and Finnish is to become Chinese and Finnish, the present government have no plans to make that happen. Andrew Adonis, one of Blair’s glove puppets, insightfully noted in 2013: “To recruit the brightest and best, teaching needs to be a high status occupation, and we need to understand better what contributes to the social standing of teachers”. There is nothing to understand, for the Chinese and Finnish, teaching is a high status occupation. In England that is not the case. Here teachers have the status of cloakroom attendants. Lord Adonis seemed to have forgotten that it was Blair’s General Teaching Council that was supposed to raise the status of teachers: it failed. The status of teachers will not be boosted by the current teacher recruitment crisis, which is leading to the training process being watered down and the fact that academies can recruit cloakroom attendants to do their teaching if they choose will not help the cause.


Conviviality should be the aim

Education is not something that people have, its a process that they are put through, where the design of the system encourages self-fulfillment, self-belief, self-aggrandisement and self-delusion. Education design lacks a purpose beyond personal ambition. The system designers live with the delusion that the sum of those individual ambitions will add up to some propitious outcome, perhaps along the lines of the politicians oft heard refrain about enabling technological progress.

Our education system misses the mark: the mark is to enable citizens to make a positive contribution to society and enable individuals to live well and flourish as human beings. No one should be surprised by this failure, listening to the voices clamouring for a new generation of grammar schools, selection and a second coming of the meritocracy, that never managed to arrive the first time around and failed to use its specialness to improve the world we all live in - to create a convivial society.



Notes.... from newspaper comments....

This is suspicious.There have been allegations of foreign students being accepted into Oxford with poor qualifications only to see them "bomb out" at the end of the first year. Off course Tuition Fees of 9k pa had absolutely nothing to do with it. Unless it was a science or engineering course,there is ample profit with the minimum of resources deployed and no possible effect on the degree results as the poor fodder didn't complete the course! The University Industry needs a total re-model. Grants for those who need them for living costs. Fees paid by UK Gov. Pretty stiff entry qualifications. Worth while degrees funded only. So there would be fewer students, fewer Universities (many of which should go back to being Technical Collages) and degrees would be worth the paper they are printed on! And our young people would not be saddled with eye-watering debt.

"Despite the rise in unconditional offers, it appears student numbers are going down.: Shouldn't that be 'because'? Why would you put yourself in debt for tens of thousands of pounds, to go to a university that will accept anyone? Like it or not, the higher education system has always operated largely as a 'gatekeeper'. To be accepted into the right school was almost the whole point. Which is why the BBC has lots of comedians who aren't even vaguely funny, but got into Oxbridge.