Review of Antony Flew on Education (1994), by Sean Gabb

Shepherd’s Warning:  Setting Schools Back on Course
Antony Flew
Adam Smith Institute, London, 1994, 161 pp, £??
(ISBN 1 873712 47 2)
Reviewed by Sean Gabb
(Published by the Society for Individual Freedom in December 1994)

The chief message of this book is that our system of state education is, and has – for at least the past generation – been, a disaster.  This is not for me either a new or a controversial message.  I have long since ceased to be astonished by the illiteracy of many of my students, for whom spelling is the job of their spell checkers, and grammar is as mysterious as modern physics.  It is, however, a message that benefits from constant repetition – and that is here communicated with all the moderation of tone and overwhelming demonstration that we have come to expect of its author.

A good example of this is Professor Flew’s reply to what has become the standard defence of the present system.  Though the hard evidence was hidden from us or tampered with, it had become clear by the 1980s that the state schools were producing a generation as illiterate and innumerate as any in the past 200 years.  When forced to recognise this fact, the bureaucrats in charge of the system excused their failure on two grounds.  First, there was a “chronic underfunding” of education.  Second, the children in state schools were often unfitted by their backgrounds for any kind of education.  Professor Flew replies thus:

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 then no simple proportionality between input of money and output of educational quality – at least, as measured by objective testing.  This is a simple truth of economics, stated in any textbook.  Indeed, for state education, the only apparent proportionality has been of the inverse kind.  And this decline in standards Professor Flew 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.

I do not see how anyone who reads this book with an open mind can fail to agree with its chief message.  I am less sure about Professor Flew’s recommendations.  These seem rather gentle in the light of what he has described.  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.  However, 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 prevent working class children from getting a sound education.

But this is not the place for me to sound off about the abolition of state education.  It is enough for me to congratulate Professor Flew for a really excellent analysis, and to urge anyone reading this review to buy a copy.

© 1994 – 2017, seangabb.

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