The Future of England’s Schools
Robert Skidelsky
Social Market Foundation | Wednesday, March 15, 2000

This conference is well timed. The debate on the future of education is opening up again, both intellectually and in party political terms, after a long period in the doldrums. The Prime Minister’s triple invocation of ‘education, education, education’ indicates a welcome sense of urgency, but in itself tells us nothing about policy .I want to concentrate on the structure of education, because ever since I got involved in the education debate thirteen years ago, I have always maintained that good achievement depends on good structure. It’s also right for an opening speech to put the structural discussion into historical context. The Prime Minister himself tried to do this in his recent Romanes Lecture at Oxford. My reading of the history is somewhat different from his, some conclusion will be somewhat different. But there are points of contact, and I will develop these.
Tony Blair’s history of education is one of state neglect with occasional exceptions. He mentions (Balfour's Education Act of 1902, Butler's Education Act of 1944, and Jim Callaghan's Ruskin speech in 1976. There was then a little progress under the Tories, but basically Labour "inherited a situation too little changed from Callaghan's day."
The moral is clear: neglect must be succeeded by "national leadership." Central government must take responsibility for investment in education, raising standards and promoting life- long learning. Then follows the catalogue of 'starts' since 1997: more money, especially on primary schools; literacy and numeracy strategies; promotion of information and communications technology, modern languages, music and sport; the creation of specialist schools; a further expansion in post-i6 education. Test results have already 'improved sharply." Our mission, Blair ends, "is to mobilise the resolve of this generation to transform Britain into a learning society...."
I don’t want to say there’s no truth in this story. But there is an alternative story to he told, which is not one of neglect but 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 health-care, with the setting up of the National Health Service.
We regard this as so normal, that we forget that it is relatively rare, even in developed countries, to have public and private provision and finance segregated in quite such a rigid way. For example, in France and Australia, which have much larger private sectors than here, private –mainly Catholic- provision and some private control over the curriculum is routinely combined with partial state funding. Most of the voluntary-aided schools would have been classified as private or independent before 1944.
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 educational outcomes.
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 d 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 eleven-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 thy enforced a rigid structure on state education which served neither the needs of the ablest or the least academic students.
It’s worth pointing out that 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 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 new 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, coordinating plans, national plans, behaviour support plans, post-Ofsted action plans, early year development plans, children in care plans, teacher training 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 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.
It sometimes looks as if education policy is made in a hermetically-sealed world by education experts who have learnt nothing either from the failures of the socialist system or from the successes of the capitalist system; or even, since education is admittedly a special case, made the intellectual effort to combine the best elements in both systems.
Any such effort would, I think, lead to the conclusion that the state’s function in education should be to provide a framework of regulation and finance which encourages spontaneous efforts at improvement.
With at least one part of his mind the Prime Minister is aware of this. He talks about the need for a ‘greater diversity in the supply of schools’, of encouraging a ‘wider range of school promoters’.
These may be euphemisms for greater competition and a place in the state education service for private suppliers of education, whether profit-making or charitable. If it means anything at all it must mean the end of the LEA monopoly. But the difficult questions of how these non-LEA providers are to enter the system, how much freedom they will have to innovate, have not yet been faced. As far as one can judge, the Education Action Zone initiative to promote government-directed diversity has been a miserable failure.
A different reading of history thus suggests some different policy conclusions. The first important requirement is to re-connect parents to the educational system. The government seems to understand the importance of this, but the only initiative it has come up with is the ‘home-school contract’ which lays down the duties of parents and schools. This ignores the much more powerful lever of parental choice, exercised through what Albert Hirschman calls an ‘exit’ option. Parents should be free to choose the schools they like and withdraw their children from schools they dislike. It’s not so much the exercise, as the threat of ‘exit’ which keeps schools responsive.
For this mechanism to work properly and within the bounds of affordability state schools must be allowed to charge fees, to which the state would contribute on a means-tested basis.
The idea of ‘vouchers’, which is only another name for earmarked tax reductions or income supplements, arouses universal horror among educationists. But it is the most direct way we have of stimulating parental interest in the quality and type of education being provided and forcing schools to respond to parental demands. Every independent head teacher, as I know Anthony Seldon will confirm, feels the power of the parental purse. And there is no reason, except outdated prejudice, why this power should not be felt in the state sector.
The second requirement is to secure a diversity of suppliers. We need to distinguish here between two rather different models. The first is the idea that state-financed education need not be provided just by local authorities. It could be provided by private organisations, whether charitable or profit-making, on agreed terms. This is the principle of the charter school movement in the United States, which started in 1991. There are now over 1700 charter schools. The most important benefit is the extra freedom given the charter school to decide its own curriculum and teaching methods. In the second model, private organisations do not undertake the running of schools, but develop whole-school designs which can be bought by individual schools or school authorities.
The most famous such initiative is the New American Schools Development Corporation set up as a private sector body by the Bush Administration in 1991.This project received a massive boost in 1998 with Comprehensive School Reform initiative of 1998, to which Congress allocated $150m. The aim is to develop a variety of school models or designs, which could be bought by actual schools, applied, and then tested for effectiveness. The main takers have been the charter schools, but in principle the designs can be bought by school districts, individual state schools, or even private schools. Other examples of school reform models include Success for All, Core Knowledge, the Edison Project.
The Big Idea in all this is to marry effective parental demand with a variety of educational products from which to choose, subject to a regulatory regime which safeguards minimum standards.
Bits and pieces of this picture are starting to enter mainstream political discussion in this country. If this conference can advance our understanding of them, it will have achieved its purpose.