It wasn’t that many decades ago when the landscape was clear. Schooling was for the majority – to equip them for their social position and economic role in society. Education was for the few - to make them the cultured and knowledgeable masters, if not of the universe at least of the empire. By their own efforts and by associating together, often in the non-conformist churches, ordinary people claimed education as their right too. Whatever the faults of the education reforms of the inter-war and immediate post-war periods, it might have been thought that things were moving in that direction. Melissa Benn’s excellent descriptive and analytic School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education exposes what a mess we find ourselves in, particularly after the efforts of the current and two previous governments.
My own conclusion, which has been reinforced by the book, is that schooling has won and education has lost, at least in the medium term. England (the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments may prove wiser) seems to have set itself on a course where we will end up with the majority going to schools which are run by for-profit bodies but paid for by the state. At the other end of the scale a few will go to schools run by non-profit foundations (such as the current independent schools) paid for privately by high fees. There will, of course, be some schools that fall somewhere between the extremes.
The schools for the majority will concentrate on useful subjects (that is useful to employers) with measurable results and with a regime that will emphasise unquestioning compliance. If you thought it is bad now, you should look closely at what some ‘flagship’ schools are doing. Financially, they will be squeezed by the desire for providers to pay dividends to their shareholders and the state’s desire to pay as little as possible. An education will be offered by the better independent schools where it will be possible to have resources for music, drama, art and sports; to learn religion and poetry and so on. In other words, all those areas and interactions that enrich our lives and enable us to be whole persons. Already such schools charge fees above the level of most families’ total annual income and that disparity will only increase in the future.
So the future begins to look like the past, though without children suffering from rickets – except that a recent news report revealed that rickets was re-emerging as a childhood disease in England. Shame on us.