Antony Flew on State Education Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life No. 22, April 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112

 #Shepherd’s Warning: Setting Schools Back on Course
Antony Flew
Adam Smith Institute, London, 1994, 161 pp,
(ISBN 1 873712 47 2)

That our system of state education is an expensive disaster will not, I think, be a controversial message to my readers. It is, however, a message that benefits from constant repetition; and in this book, it is communicated with all the moderation of tone and overwhelming demonstration that we have come to expect of its author.

Take, for example, Professor Flew’s reply to the usual excuses – that the young people dragooned into this system emerge almost illiterate and innumerate, because of “chronic underfunding”; and that many of them are so “deprived” (by whom? and of what?) as to be unfitted for any kind of education. It goes as follows:

First, in 1987, the same reading test was given to black children in a South African school as to students at a sixth form college in the Home Counties. The South African children did better – even though English was in every case their second language, and incomparably less was spend on their education, and they came from incomparably poorer backgrounds. [pp. 77-78]

Second, despite all the rhetoric about the “Thatcher cuts”, education spending per child increased by 47 per cent in real terms between 1983 and 1993. [p. 12]

There is, Professor Flew argues, no simple proportionality between input of money and output of educational quality – at least, as measured by objective testing. Indeed, for state education, the only apparent proportionality has been of the inverse kind. And this decline in standards he blames firmly on the educational bureaucrats. They have systematically diverted funds from the education of children to the expansion of their own numbers and salaries. Worse than this, they have imposed teaching methods that manifestly do not work, and a syllabus that is often worthless.

Of course, I do not agree with Professor Flew’s recommendations. He is a reformist. Despite having piled up enough evidence in this small book to justify immediate abolition, he still believes that the system can be rescued. Well, it cannot. There are some disasters so complete and inevitable, that it is pointless to talk of reforming the system responsible for having produced them. State education is an example of this. Opting out and vouchers sound attractive, and ought surely to bring some improvements. But this disaster is one not only of systems, but also of people. And so long as they continue in place, the people who run our educational bureaucracies will find ways to continue turning out generation after generation of deadheads and thugs.

Enough of me, though. I thank Professor Flew for a most valuable analysis, and urge my readers to order a copy.

Edward Hume (Sean Gabb)

© 1995 – 2018, seangabb.

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