Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Freedom and Responsibility: A conservative educational revolution

Education in Britain today is in a state of crisis. As a matter of fact, it’s not in a state of crisis - it is a crisis.

It’s a crisis which you don’t even have to be a student, a parent or a teacher to recognise and comprehend. It’s a crisis we are offered an insight into every August, when teenagers across the country open their envelopes and read off a short list of letters which will make or break their whole future, only for the media to proclaim that that list of letters, whether they’re ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’, is becoming more and more meaningless.

It’s a crisis which comes to a head sporadically, whenever some bureaucrat or politico makes a mistake – which, in the field of education, they seem to do with astonishing frequency! It’s a crisis we’ve seen already this year, when the woman with the whip hand over the minds of the youth of our country was accused of poor judgement in allowing sex offenders to take up jobs in schools. It’s a crisis we can begin to contemplate whenever we look at statistics which show that Maths teaching in Hungary and Slovenia is of a better standard than it is here in the United Kingdom. It’s a crisis we can observe when we discover that 82% of 11-year olds can’t spell ‘necessary’, or that a quarter fail with the word ‘castles’; when we discover that three million people have been educated so poorly in the most basic of areas that they would never even try to write a message to their friends and family at Christmastime; when we see that more than a quarter of Year 11 students in one state school at least three times a month (according to a survey taken on a school day - God only knows how many were absent when the survey was taken!).

However, it’s a crisis which runs so deep through our country that it can’t be measured simply by statistics, but by the experiences of those of us who play a role, however big or small, in it all. It’s a crisis which is so complex and so vast that it can’t be solved by simple policy gestures here, financial packages there, and handshakes and smiles for the cameras. It’s a crisis which has, in fact, gone on for decades, but has always been misdiagnosed, mistreated or, more often, completely ignored.

The problem with British education is that it is centred on the State. The government tells teachers what they can teach. The government tells headmasters how they can spend their money. The government tells parents where to send their children. The government takes away great freedom from teachers, parents and students, and this destroys the individual responsibility of all those people with a stake in the education of our citizenry.

This stands in stark contrast to those corners of our globe where education flourishes, such as Singapore, which stands head and shoulders above the pack whenever any new survey is released to set down in tabular form who teaches their students best. Whilst less than ten percent of British students at secondary school attend private schools which are, for the sake of argument, independent (although still bound and gagged by many strictures of State control), in Singapore the figure is virtually quadruple that. Parents take responsibility, as all schools charge them money, albeit amounts much lower than private education in Britain demands, for the education provided. The academic spirit of Singaporean schools is so different to that in Britain, with all the virtues of competition bred into the hearts and minds of their students. Education is at its best when it is set free to thrive, not when it is restricted by government. In Singapore and across the rest of the rapidly developing Far East, education is set free to thrive, and this has brought the diverse provision of education to their students, and the freedom and responsibility that parents and teachers must always possess so that they may excel. It’s no wonder that the Orient is becoming the brain of the world.

And it’s not just these distant lands which have taken the initiative by saying ‘No’ to the destruction and misery of State rule. Just as in the field of healthcare and social security, Britain remains the most centralised, State-run education system in the western world. The example of Sweden is one to consider, to prove that even our neighbours have it better than we do, never mind the people on the other side of town!

Sweden is one of only two countries across the world with a scheme of universal vouchers, where 75% of the average cost of tuition per pupil is given to parents to send their child to any school of their choice. This has led, in the jargon of the educational establishment, to a wider diversity of provision of education in the country, as any kind of school which fulfils simple, basic requirements according to a national body must be financed by the voucher, whether they are religious schools or institutions run by voluntary organisations. By 2004, twenty-two Swedish schools were run by an organisation called Kunskapsskolan, or ‘The Knowledge School’. Over the next five years, they intend to have grown to fifty schools, catering for 20,000 pupils. Their educational ethos is much different to the very formal to the Swedish State sector, which is more akin in its approach to traditional independent schools here in Britain. Their students wear no uniform, discipline and teaching methods are relaxed, encouraging an informal and friendly working environment. Individual learning is emphasised more than the formal, and often poorly-directed, nature of class-based tuition. Students are in charge of their own timetable and what they learn and how they learn, and this allows them to thrive, by encouraging a greater sense of personal responsibility (what conservative can criticise that?!). The leaders of the Kunskapsskolan have no qualms about being driven by the need to make a profit. Chief Executive Anders Hultin has said, “It is hard to see any conflict between the company and our parents as our profit comes from good results and satisfying parents and students. If we don't perform well, then we don't make any profit at all.” Herein lies a lesson for us all. It’s what Adam Smith was talking about when he declared that it is not through the benevolence of the butcher, the baker and the brewer that we expect our dinner, but through their regard to their own interests. Private schools keen to make a profit must satisfy their consumers, and in order to do that, they must provide a first-class education. There is no need for the stumbling apologism of so many conservatives about profit-making here. Capitalists who are happy to call themselves capitalists (as I am), as well as those who are not (like most right-wingers), should never be afraid to talk about the importance of making money, and how this drives business to provide a better service, and that benefits us all, from the humble worker to the almighty buyer.

The Swedish experience harks back to a long-gone era in Britain. Back in the Victorian years, education was thriving. Despite the tales Dickens told, by the end of the nineteenth century, virtually all youngsters had spent at least their primary years in formal education. This apparently revolutionary idea of ‘diversity of provision’ was the way they had always worked. Working men’s colleges, mechanics institutes, dame schools, ragged schools, grammar schools and Sunday schools were set free to thrive. Parents had the power to decide what education they wanted for their children. Victoria’s people had freedom and responsibility of a kind that Elizabeth’s can only dream and wonder about. And it is exactly that freedom and that responsibility that will let education flourish once again on our fair island.

The Swedish experience shows how parents and students can be given a choice over their education. The modern-day British experience and its ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ just doesn’t work! Every student is different, and can not be treated as simply part of a bigger and more important system. The needs of the student must always be paramount in education. The student should not be forced to fit into the system. And that is another charge against the British way.

Yet here in Britain, there are still pockets of resistance to the Statist monster. Private education still moves onwards and upwards, and refuses to baulk in the face of socialist anger and aggression. And it thrives!

Private education in Britain is not all silly hats and Latin mottos. Private schools are mini-communities, with thriving societies to cater for every taste and desire. Sport, drama, art and music is encouraged, and involvement in the rest of the school community is just as important for students as getting the grades in class. They are well led by dedicated, committed and talented people, for whom the school is what they live for. In private schools, students take responsibility for themselves and for the school community as a whole. On the academic side, co-operation and competition walk hand in hand, in harmony, not in conflict. The best student is the one who does his work to the best of his ability, but will always offer a helping hand to his friend, who might be struggling to grasp some abstract idea or who has just remembered to do his homework ten minutes before the lesson is due to begin (let’s face it - it happens to us all!). These communities are far more diverse than State schools too, with students coming from a wider range of backgrounds, whether socially, economically or ethnically. This is because the best private schools attract interest from far and wide, and because parents of limited means but limitless aspirations for their children are assisted to make their dreams come true, whilst the State system simply compels students into the school which serves their community and only their community, having already sought to segregate poorer families on the council estates they made long ago. There is close parental involvement in the private school, with parents regularly meeting with their child’s teachers to discuss their progress, as well as a thriving social element for them to enjoy. And this is entirely understandable - they want their money’s worth! This kind of consumerism in education is clearly no evil thing. It works in Sweden. It works in Singapore. And when it’s allowed to, it works here too! Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair think they can simply pick and choose the characteristics of the private school, such as the prefects or the house system, and then expect them to work in the State system. This is fantasy. The private school is not just a concrete noun. It’s a concept, and it thrives as it does because it is built on the virtues of freedom and responsibility. Teachers, parents and students are free to be responsible, precisely because greater freedom demands greater responsibility, and because we can only be responsible for ourselves if we are free.

State education in Britain forgets all this. State education snatches children from their parents at three or four, and spits them out of the machine at the other end, with nothing valuable to show for it - no skills for their working life, no wisdom, no virtue. The State is not a teacher and it is not a parent, and whenever we, the people, allow the State to think that it is better than us at educating our youth, our society is on a path to destruction.

The history of State education in Britain is a treatise on the theme of failure. It’s why Oxbridge admissions tutors, when forced to choose between State-educated and privately-educated students of similar abilities, tastes and wishes, they will take the State-educated student - not because they want to prop up the State system, but because they know the State-educated student has not nearly had the same opportunities and the same chances as the privately-educated student, and because the State-educated student has endured such a hopeless education and has still come out fighting. It’s why education here in Britain as an idea is labelled a ‘problem’, which politicians say they want to ‘get to grips with’. Quite simply, it’s why our country is no longer a nation of aspiration, ambition and virtue, but a wreck.

Yet there is hope. There is hope from the lessons of Singapore and Sweden and all over the world, where the very conservative virtues of freedom and responsibility are as much a part of education as the sound of chalk on blackboard. The task for Britain is to develop an educational philosophy which believes in freedom for schools: for teachers, for parents and for students, so that this very freedom encourages we, the people, to take responsibility for our education.

Our educational revolution is not one which can be achieved by simplistic policy gestures here or there - after all, we are not socialists! As Stuart Sexton, a political advisor on education in the Thatcher years has written, “Today, the Department for Education and Skills tells schools what to teach, how to teach, what ‘targets’ to achieve, what to spend, what not to spend, and so on.” The first task is to bring this to an end. Government must give schools independence in all these areas. The National Curriculum forces schools to teach exactly what the State wants, from the age of four to eighteen, and perhaps even in the future, in the nursery! This must end. It gives teachers no trust and respect, no freedom and responsibility, and treats them as nothing more than agents of the State, placed in schools simply to do the Secretary of State’s bidding. Government-imposed targets must go. State-imposed regulation on what headmasters can do with their own money must go. Independence for schools in all these areas and more is the vital first step.

Having achieved colossal reforms such as these in the way schools work, we must set about challenging the Statist provision of education. The best option for Britain is the introduction of a universal voucher, learning the lessons of similar schemes around the world. The voucher would be used at any school of the family’s choice, and is open to all pupils. No government authority would be allowed to oppose the use of the voucher at any school, so long as it satisfies simple, basic standards as in Sweden. Schools would be able to admit students based on any criteria they wish, including according to religion. Any education provider would be allowed to participate in and benefit from the scheme, from charities and trusts to profit-making companies. At present, the State spends around £5,000 per year on every secondary pupil (which is, incidentally, roughly the average private school fee). However, with bureaucracy, only £3,000 of that gets through to the school. If we were able to eliminate bureaucracy on a massive scale in education, I see no reason why the voucher could not be worth 100 percent of what the State already spends on education. This is the conservative way and it gives parents, teachers and students respect and trust to make their own decision, and to chart their own destiny.

These are only the first steps. Our driving ambition must be the desire to eventually breed a society which thrives on the ethos of personal responsibility for education. Schools must become thriving communities, not simply places of great learning. It will require the growth in the kind of social entrepreneurialism and shared responsibility of which David Cameron has stressed so often in recent weeks and months to develop a greater education in Britain. The flag of State control must be lowered from every school in our country, and in its place, we must raise the standard of freedom and responsibility.

Education must always be the most important pursuit for us all. Education is not simply about the school or the college. Education is life, and life is education. It has always been important to me and my family, and that is why we scrimp and save to ensure I am well-educated and afforded the best chances and opportunities in life, because my family and I believe in taking responsibility for our education. I have no qualms about admitting that I am the first member of my family to attend a private school, and I have no trouble with telling the world that the freedom and responsibility that has allowed me to succeed in education meant that last August, when I was given the result of my GCSE French exam, which I, like many others in my school, had taken a year early, I became the first member of my family with a formal academic qualification. Despite the crushing impositions placed upon those who provide me, just one student, with my education, the freedom we seek and the responsibility we believe in has already brought me success, and we must all work hard to ensure that all students across the country enjoy success in all they seek. But to do this requires us to build an educational outlook based on freedom and responsibility.

To reform education in Britain, and to breed this educational revolution, takes an almighty will and determination. To do what I propose we do is a great challenge. It takes balls! Margaret Thatcher couldn’t even stomach it in the 1980s. This was one fight that she and her intellectual mentor Keith Joseph couldn’t live up to when they contemplated reforms such as these back then. So let’s show the world how it’s done!

Some day soon, we’ll have no choice. Education in Britain will be in a helpless heap. And it will either fall to the Cameron generation to lead this educational revolution, bringing about a new dawn of freedom and responsibility, or it will be my generation. Because I can pledge, with my hand on my heart, that I will make it my life’s work to build a stronger society based on a bold philosophy of education, held high by those pillars of freedom and responsibility, and many more will join me!

We’ve got the ideas, we’ve got the will and determination, and we’ve got the desire to build a greater, stronger, prouder society. We can do this!

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