Less is Good, Nothing is Better: How the State Can Improve British Education, Sean Gabb, 17th November 2004

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 128
17th November 2004

Less is Good, Nothing is Better:
How the State Can Improve British Education
Sean Gabb

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Even before Mike Tomlinson reported on examination reform, everyone agreed, and competed at agreeing, that British state education was a mess. Schools all over the country are turning out generations 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. Yes, there are those whose job it is to disagree with this proposition. Naturally enough, there are the teachers and educational bureaucrats; and there are the relevant Ministers, who every summer put their names on news releases lauding the latest set of examination results. But everyone knows they are talking nonsense. If examination results were an indicator of excellence, we should be living in a nation of Shakespeares and Newtons. In fact, grade inflation and a continuous debasement of the whole examinations system have made the results largely worthless. We can no more make people educated by giving them pretty certificates than we can make them rich by giving them bags of forged banknotes. State education is a mess.

The standard response is to whine or boast about levels of funding. But this is a manifestly threadbare response. In 2002, the authorities spent £49.354 billion of our money on schooling and further education. Given a total of 10.094 million children and young people in the maintained sector, we have spending per head of around £4,900. Many independent schools charge less than that —and get better results. Indeed, there are schools in black 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.

There is no one explanation for why things are so bad. But this does not mean the problem is intractably complex. Though there are others, there are three main explanations.

In the first place, there is the emphasis on vocational learning that we owe to the vulgar economic liberalism of the Thatcher and Major Governments. The belief here is that the main or even sole purpose of education is to promote economic development. Accordingly, any subject from which no tangible return could be imagined was either removed from the curriculum or fragmented or simplified into nothingness. History and Classics were the most obvious victims—and, in lesser degree, Music. Much of the time thereby freed was filled with the almost obsessive teaching of Information Technology.

Now, there is a case for teaching children how to type: left to themselves, most people develop typing habits that reduce their general efficiency. 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. No one has yet developed a course in Mobile Telephone Studies. This has not visibly left any of my students at a disadvantage. In my experience, much of the time given to Information Technology is used to play games or look up trivia on the Internet. The time would be better given to teaching German or a musical instrument.

In the second place, there is the fact that the main purpose of state education has always been to legitimise the wealth and status of the ruling class. We can see this was so in the past. Without all the drilling in the playground, and all the team sports, and all the hours given to nationalist propaganda, would those ten million young men have marched even semi-willingly to die in the killing grounds of the Great War? Nothing fundamental has changed since then. All that has changed is the personnel of the ruling class and the nature of its legitimation ideology.

Because it is suited to our present assumptions, we cannot see this ideology so clearly as we now see those it replaced. It is there, even so. It is that axis of anti-liberal, anti-western, anti-science, anti-Enlightenment and pro-collectivist values and coercive social engineering that we call political correctness. With the decline of traditional socialism, this has gained a growing and hegemonic role in most developed societies. As an ideology, it manifestly promotes the power and privileges of our new ruling class—this being a coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, educators, lawyers, media people and associated business interests who derive wealth and status from an enlarged and activist state. The ideology is used to stigmatise and demonise any dissenting opinion, and to censor and silence it; and information is socially constructed in order to balkanise society into alleged “victim groups” who provide tribalistic bases for the exercise of political power and the extraction of economic profit by the ruling class. As ever, education is the chief mechanism by which this legitimation ideology is transmitted from one generation to the next.

As illustration, take the way in which GCSE English Literature is taught. Some years ago, while short of cash, I acted as an assistant examiner. Two of the most commonly examined books—both American—were To Kill a Mocking Bird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Doubtless, these are worthy enough texts in their own right. But they are nothing much compared with the great classics of English literature produced in these islands. Judging by the several thousand pages of answers I must have read, however, they had been preferred because they allowed English lessons to be made into sermons of racial hatred that passed unrebuked only because the objects of hatred were white.

In the third place, there is the centralised, authoritarian control that both of the above require for complete enforcement. We have the National Curriculum and we have endless testing to see that arbitrary and often incomprehensible targets are being reached.

The combined result is a demoralised teaching profession, bored and apathetic children, and a collapse of standards as these were once universally defined. The system was not very good before the 1980s. Since then, it has rotted away to the point where just about everyone with money either avoids it altogether, choosing the independent sector, or rigs it by moving into middle class catchment areas.

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The politicians promise reform. But all reforms so far discussed can only make things worse. Labour promises more money and a restructuring of management—not only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but also replacing the canvas with silk. The Conservatives promise “choice”—though always supervised by the same philistine and politically correct bureaucracy that messed up the present system. The more adventurous Conservatives even talk about a voucher scheme. This has its merits. But conservatives of all people ought to know that any scheme of improvement takes its whole tone from the circumstances in which it is introduced. Any voucher scheme introduced now would give our ruling class a perfect excuse to spread the corruption deep into the independent sector. It would do this by setting criteria for the reception of vouchers, and would enforce these criteria through the usual agencies of inspection and control.

The only 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; and these should be directed at the poorest taxpayers. The schools should be sold off or given away, and the bureaucrats be made redundant. The people should then be left to arrange by themselves for the education of their children.

The argument that parents would not or could not do this falls flat on any inspection of the third world, 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 ruling class coup against an independent sector that looked set to marginalise its legitimation ideology. And that reaction was promoted on the basis of fraudulent statistics.

Left to themselves, it is inconceivable that parents would not do substantially better than those presently in charge of state education. How they might do this 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 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. Parents could hardly do worse than the present arrangements manage. They could easily do better.

This is not a “left” or a “right” wing cause. It is about allowing children to get an education which is not directed to moulding them to believe as suits the convenience of their betters, and which really will enable them to make the best of their own lives.

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