Against Schooling | Stuart Abram

Debate around education, which has raged especially furiously since the 1960s, has focused on schools and, to a lesser extent, on the world of higher education. In that time, we have witnessed (among other things) comprehensivisation, the Plowden Report, the raising of the school age, the introduction of GCSEs, the National Curriculum, Ofsted, assisted places, Curriculum 2000, academisation and, latterly, free schools and further exam reform. What improvement has this accomplished? Little or none, it seems. Sixty years of effort have achieved little but to inflate the cost of, broadly, the same outcomes achieved year on year.

Are there alternatives to the status quo? In recent years, homeschooling has both grown and, during lockdowns, been essentially universal. For the super-rich, it is possible to resort to the antediluvian solution of a governess (or governor). These children will often fare well, freed from the increasingly artificial world of a school yet directed by a caring yet knowledgeable person. Alas, neither solution is really possible for the ordinary public, occupied by work or other obligations, or lacking the background to inculcate maths, science or languages. So what are we to do?

The first stage of a real reform is to abandon the notion that schooling and state intervention are the best means (or even effective means) of improving education. Historically (as homeschooling and governess-ing recapture), education took place largely outside of schools. Whether practical or academic, knowledge and skills were imbibed outside a world which, in differing ways throughout history, has often proven severe, hostile and ineffective. Cardinal Newman, the nineteenth century reformer of the University of Oxford, laments the enthusiasm for ‘the ideal systems of education which have fascinated the imagination of this age [the mid-nineteenth century]” in favour of the much less regimented and much freer association of the young in the atmosphere of that “city of aquatint” (Waugh), which was able to “boast of a succession of heroes and statesmen, of literary men and philosophers, of men conspicuous for great natural virtues, for habits of business, for knowledge of life, for practical judgment, for cultivated tastes, for accomplishments, who have made England what it is,—able to subdue the earth, able to domineer over Catholics.’ In short, Newman attributes the success of the British Empire to the freedom of its educational system from impossible ideals or the constipation of putting faith in ‘reforms’ which ignore both pragmatics and individuals in their calculations.

So, what are we to do when we have abandoned our misplaced faith in reports and grand reforms? Alas, we must perhaps accept that schools are (and will be) a fact of life. Yet from that resignation springs hope. If genuine learning is rarely to be found in schools, it does not preclude less institutional settings – learned societies, tutoring, distance learning, etc. – from offering viable contexts to nurture and express learning. For a conservative or even a merely curious mind, the rigidity and mediocrity of modern university life is unlikely to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. Indeed, the often monstrous cost and the miserable quality of ‘higher education’ is driving many to spare themselves the ‘ideal systems of education’ in favour of alternatives.

Given these alternatives are slowly developing, what would a full array of them look like? Here, we find clues in Fr. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, where he attacks the preoccupation with schooling on similar (if more leftist) grounds as Newman. He suggests a system whereby would-be students would be able to communicate with sufficiently qualified tutors and learn on terms they agree. In a heavily-taxed society such as ours, this would require state subsidy. In New Hampshire, in the United States, the state government has now allowed parents who homeschool to apportion the c. $5,000 the state would provide to a school as they see fit for their child’s education, ie they can purchase books, the services of tutors, etc, as they like. Parents (and children) will be free to develop particular talents earlier than institutions allow and to abandon fruitless (and burdensome) aspects of the curriculum earlier. Moreover, by moving our emphasis away from schools to how individuals can seek improvements to their education, we can relieve schools of many of the expensive and wasteful burdens on their time, such as Ofsted and the endless paperwork.

What would this mean for Great Britain? By allowing parents both to use schools, but also to use part of the budget allocated to fund additional education, we would relieve schools of the burden of expectation placed upon them. We would be able to rid ourselves of the vast army of deputy and assistant headteachers, whose missives plague the lives of rank and file teachers. While parents would still seek to find as good a school as possible for their child, it would be less of a zero-sum game. The game, to an extent, would be levelled between poorer parents (who have no alternative to what the school offers) and wealthier parents (with the options of tutoring or private schools). We would also increase the diversity and flexibility of our educational provision.

There would be losers. The overpaid Ofsted inspectors would largely go, as would the headteachers who terrify and bully their staff with the thought of a “bad Ofsted report”. We might even be able to close the teacher-training courses. Yet the children and their parents would win and that, surely, is what matters. 

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