TCS Daily

Cutting Classes

By Sean Gabb - June 28, 2006 12:00 AM

It is mid-point in the school examination season. The papers sit, scripts sent off for marking, nothing is left but to wait and see if the results "break all records" or are just "evidence of solid progress".

And everyone knows what nonsense this will be. British state education is in collapse. Its schools are turning out an army of innumerate, semi-literate proles. They have become places notable for bullying, truancy in its various shades, drugs, unwise sex, the occasional murder, and a pervasive contempt for achievement. There are those whose job it is to disagree with this proposition. But there is no denying that grade inflation and a debasement of the papers have made examination results largely worthless. Certificates are fast becoming the academic equivalents of forged banknotes.

The problem is not one of funding. The state sector is awash with money. In 2002, £49 billion of our tax money went on schooling and further education. Given a total of 10 million children and young people in the maintained sector, that gives spending per head of around £4,900. Many independent schools charge less than that, and get better results. Indeed, there are schools in Africa that do better. These are places without school books, without roofs over the classrooms, where the teachers are dying of AIDS, and where bandits every so often turn up and conscript the more promising children to fight in what are pretentiously called civil wars - and they still turn out children with a better English prose style than the average inmate of an English comprehensive.

In part, the problem is one of management. Our state education is under centralized, authoritarian control. There is the National Curriculum. There is endless testing to see that arbitrary and often incomprehensible targets are reached. Then there is the emphasis on vocational learning that we owe to the sneering philistinism of the last three governments. According to this, at least the secondary use of education is to promote economic development. Therefore, any subject lacking an obvious, tangible return has been removed from the curriculum or fragmented or simplified into nothingness. History and Classics have been the most obvious victims - and, in lesser degree, Music. Much of the time freed is now filled with the obsessive teaching of Information Technology.

Now, there is a case for teaching children how to type: left to themselves, most people never get beyond the hunt and peck method. There may also be a case for teaching the basics of the Microsoft Office suite. But these are things to be learnt over a few weeks. All else specified in the Information Technology syllabus is useless or would be picked up anyway by the children themselves. The time would be better given to teaching German or a musical instrument.

In main, however, the problem of the state sector is not its management, but its existence. The primary use of state education has never, more than incidentally, been enlightenment. It has always been the preaching of whatever values are presently held by the ruling class. Without that drilling in the playground, and the team sports, and the hours given to nationalist propaganda, would all those young men have marched even semi-willingly to the killing grounds of the Great War?

All that has changed since then is the nature of the ruling class and of its values. Our modern rulers are a loose coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, experts and educators, together with relevant media and business people. They derive wealth and power and status from an enlarged and active state. Their legitimizing ideology involves the building of some multicultural utopia in which the place of true love and respect is supplied by its appearance imposed by law.

Preaching this ideology requires mass-illiteracy and an indifference to older values. For decades now, educators have been producing by more gentle means the "Year Zero" in the public mind that the Jacobins and Bolsheviks tried to achieve all at once by force. But the preaching also produces these effects. Combined with philistinism and inept managerialism, it has led to a demoralized teaching profession, bored and apathetic children, and a collapse of standards as these were once universally defined. No wonder just about everyone with money either avoids the state sector, choosing the independent sector, or rigs it by moving into middle class catchment areas.

Reforms are promised. None will improve matters. Labour promises more money and a restructuring of management - not only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but also replacing canvas with silk. The Conservatives promise "choice" - though always supervised by the same people who messed up the present system. A voucher scheme at the moment would simply spread corruption into the independent sector. Criteria would have to be set for the reception of vouchers, and these criteria would be enforced through the usual agencies of inspection and control.

The real answer is to get the state entirely out of education. The education budget should not be expanded, or its administration reformed. It should simply be abolished. That £49 billion - now, I believe, £63 billion - should be handed back to the people in tax cuts. The schools should be sold off or given away, the bureaucrats made redundant. The people should then be left to arrange by themselves for the education of their children.

Anyone who says parents would not or could not do this knows nothing of those poor countries, where parents make often heavy sacrifices and choose often highly effective schemes of education. There is also the experience of our own past. A generation ago, E.G. West showed how growing numbers of working class people in the 19th century paid for and supervised the education of their children. The beginning of state education in 1870 should be seen as a ruling class coup against an independent sector that looked set to marginalize its legitimation ideology.

Left to themselves, it is hard to see how parents could do worse than those presently in charge of state education. How they might do better is for them to decide. Some would pay for a conventional independent education. Some would send their children to schools run by their ministers of religion, or by charitable bodies. Some would educate their children at home.

Many do this last already, by the way; and Paula Rothermel of Durham University caused a stir in 2002, when she looked at a sample of children educated at home and found they performed consistently better in standard tests than schoolchildren. Indeed, she found that the children of people like bus drivers and shop assistants were receiving a better education than those committed to the care of state-certified teachers. Home education may not always be that good. State education generally is that bad.

This is not a "left" or a "right" wing cause. It is about re-civilizing the masses. It is about educating them. It is even about preparing them to function in an advanced economy. And all this is to be achieved not by ding for them - but by leaving them to do for themselves.

Sean Gabb is Deputy Director of the Truancy Unit at Buckingham University. His latest book, Homeschooling in full view: A Reader, was published in America in 2005)



It is the parents that are the problem...
If parents are committed to their children's education, then their children will do well - or at least, their best.

But too frequently, parents simply dump their ill-disciplined kids at school and expect the teachers to civilise and teach them.

Or at least, that is my impression.

This cretin's proposals are complete nonsense, which isn't to say that I have anything better to offer than compulsory public slappings for the parents of unruly children.

Abolish public schools
The author is no cretin. In fact he is right on target. Government generally does a lousy job of providing goods and services. WayneRooney is correct, "parents simply dump their ill-disciplined kids at school and expect the teachers to civilize and teach them". It's time to end that syndrome by making parents responsible for the education of their children. Parents who are paying directly for their children's schooling are likely to have a very different attitude from those who think they are getting it for free.

Parents should have their choice of school, and schools should have their choice of pupils. That would make all the difference.

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