Opinion: Beware the collectivisation of education
Robert Skidelsky
The independent | Monday, March 20, 2000

TONY BLAIR'S view of the history of education is one of state neglect with occasional exceptions. I don't want to say there's no truth in this story. But there is an alternative story to be told, which is not one of neglect but one of creeping collectivisation.
On the resources side, this culminated in the abolition of all fee- paying in local authority and voluntary aided schools in 1944, and the creation thereafter of an apartheid between an independent fee- paying sector, educating less than 10 per cent of all pupils, and a free - that is, tax-financed - state sector. Roughly the same thing happened, at roughly the same time in healthcare, with the setting up of the National Health Service.
The effect of the Butler Act was to cut off most parents from any involvement with the education of their children. Resources for the state schools were by and large limited to what the state could squeeze out of the taxpayer; and educational energies were mobilised behind a new class war between the "toffs" and the "rest". Blair is right, though, in his claim that while the state paid up, it was slow to take responsibility for the educational outcomes of students.
Blair's history also misleads about structure. He now rejects the "one size fits all" comprehensives. But he fails to mention that this was largely the creation of central government, especially Labour government, and its education secretary of the 1960s, Tony Crosland. True enough, there was a local authority groundswell in favour of comprehensives, but the coup de grace to the old tripartite system was delivered by Crosland. His Circular 10/65, together with subsequent directives, ordered local authorities to go comprehensive, with financial penalties for non-compliance. Crosland famously said: "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland."
Again, we forget how relatively rare this "one size fits all" comprehensive school really is. It is certainly not the norm in Europe. And it needn't have happened. One can have selective schools without the 11-plus, and one can have comprehensives with streaming and setting - as indeed Crosland wanted. Comprehensives, as they developed, were the result of class-war thinking. They reinforced the apartheid between the independent sector and the rest, and they enforced a rigid structure on state education which served neither the needs of the ablest or the least academic students.
The so-called skills gap between Britain and its leading competitors developed after comprehensive reorganisation. A Brookings Institution Report on the British economy, published in 1968, found no evidence of any such gap; not only was the "level of education" of the British workforce about the same as in other European countries, but it was improving faster than in Germany and as fast as in France. So it is at least a tenable hypothesis that the relative "de- skilling" was an effect of the comprehensive revolution.
Since the mid-1980s, the main efforts of governments have been devoted to trying to force superior outcomes out of an inferior structure, with only minor attention paid to making the structure itself more responsive to parental preferences and changing social conditions.
What Blair's "national leadership" means in practice is increasing centralisation and control. Scarcely a day goes by without some initiative announced, new targets set, new task forces set up. These are in addition to the requirement for school plans, local authority education development plans, co-ordinating plans, national plans, behaviour support plans, post-Ofsted action plans, early year development plans, children in care plans and so on. What we have is a miniature Soviet planning system, though minus the terror which for a time brought it some success.
All of this is completely contrary to the main requirement of a successful social system, which is that it should contain within itself the spontaneous power of adapting to new demands made on it. This is the secret of a decentralised capitalist market economy.