A Point of View: The case for not leaving education to the teachers

Hands up in a classroom

We should not expect education to be simply left to teachers, or the state, argues the philosopher Roger Scruton.

Since the Middle Ages, education has been regarded in this country as a public duty. Originally the duty did not fall on the state. It was a general charitable duty, to which wealthy people responded by establishing schools and colleges, setting up the trusts that would fund them, and providing scholarships for poor pupils. A statute of Elizabeth I defined education as a charitable purpose, entitled to certain legal and fiscal privileges. Over the following centuries new schools proliferated, often established by the Anglican and non-conformist churches. In 1833 the government introduced an annual grant to two charities that provided both church schools and non-denominational schools for poor children. As a result of those and similar moves education rapidly expanded during the first half of the 19th Century, to the point where it was unusual for a child not to acquire sufficient numeracy and literacy to survive in the competitive environment of the industrial cities.

Peebleshire classroom, 1930s

Eventually Parliament passed laws compelling all children aged five to 13 to attend a school, beginning with the Education Act of 1870, which obliged the state to step in and pay the fees for families who could not afford them. Since that time the state has increasingly taken the initiative, establishing primary and secondary schools, raising the school-leaving age and, in due course, creating new universities and colleges designed to make a full education available to everyone. But while the state extended our educational system, it did not create it. As the system expanded in the 18th and 19th Centuries, it was private individuals, charitable trusts and religious foundations that took the most important steps. The state inherited well-funded, long established and dedicated institutions and a tried and tested curriculum that large numbers of people knew how to teach. Of course, there were barriers of wealth and class that could not be easily crossed, as the Victorian novelists remind us. But there was also a culture of respect for education, and an eagerness to teach and to learn.

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Roger Scruton
  • Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT

I was a child from a poor background who was lucky enough to attend the local grammar school. Our school had been established by royal charter in 1562, and had inherited the standards and traditions associated with the public schools. Like most of the grammar schools it was funded by the state, and I received the best possible education for free, leading to a scholarship to Cambridge. But to enter grammar school I had to pass an examination, which I took at the age of 11, and those of my classmates in primary school who failed that examination had to go to the local secondary modern, where inevitably standards were not so high and the long-term prospects less favourable. Not surprisingly it seemed to many people unjust and politically unacceptable that the prospects of poor children should be decided at the age of 11. Hence there was a long-standing and eventually successful campaign to abolish that examination and to amalgamate the grammar schools and the secondary moderns into comprehensives.

The intentions behind that reform were the best. And when Anthony Crosland, education minister under a Labour government, called on local authorities to submit plans to go comprehensive, the response was largely positive. The policy was pursued under both Labour and Conservative governments and as a result most of the grammar schools were either absorbed into comprehensives or deprived of state funding. Thereafter only people with money could obtain the kind of education that I once obtained for free. This was hardly an advance from the point of view of social mobility, and certainly not a way of rectifying the inequalities that had inspired the reforms in the first place.

Anthony Crosland Anthony Crosland was education minister under Harold Wilson

The response of many egalitarians to the widening gap between state and private education is to call for the removal of all privileges from the private schools - then all children really would be equal, and nobody could obtain a better education than average merely by being wealthier than the rest of us. But, besides being a vast trespass on the freedom of citizens, such a reform would have the same effect as the abolition of grammar schools. Rich people would bypass the schools, establishing home schooling networks as they do in America. Or they would ensure that their children are provided in the evenings with the resources of which they are deprived during the day.

Harrow schoolboys outside Lords Harrow schoolboys observed by locals outside Lord's, 1937

The history of education in this country since 1870 shows us that the state is better at placing obstacles in the way of teaching than encouraging people to take it up. Teaching qualifications, once regarded as a badge of merit, became obligatory during the post-war period, to be imposed by law as the sole route into the state system. Knowledge was no longer a sufficient qualification. And soon it wasn't a necessary qualification either. After a hundred years of domination by the state our education system, which was once one of the best in the world, fails to make the top 20 on the scale issued by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). The answer, it seems to me, is not to go further down the path of state control - closing down this school and meddling in that one - but to encourage people to do what they did in the early 19th Century, which was to take charge of schooling for themselves. Education, we must remind ourselves, is not about social engineering, however laudable that goal might be. It is about passing knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.

Tough Young Teachers BBC's Tough Young Teachers showed graduates in the Teach First programme

Our country is full of people who know things, and of children who want to learn things. A successful education system is one that brings the two together, so that knowledge can pass between them. In every village there are people with knowledge that would be useful to the young - retired accountants and lawyers, musicians and singers, those who speak a foreign language, writers, plumbers, farmers, engineers and amateur historians. And many of those would welcome the opportunity to teach what they know. Somehow we have failed to harness this capital, letting it go to waste while our children drift in search of it. Gradually our governments have begun to wake up to this fact. We are seeing a revival in government circles of the old idea of education as a charitable gift from one generation to the next, rather than a form of state-controlled social engineering.

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One encouraging development has been the establishment under a Labour government of the Teach First programme, which allows people with knowledge to learn the art of teaching as one learns to ride a bicycle - namely by doing it. This removes the obstacle created by the old state qualifications and helps to resurrect the idea of teaching as a vocation. The establishment of academies, which enables some specialist schools once again to set standards for entrance, has created for poor children some of the opportunities enjoyed by the rich. And the present government is allowing citizens to start schools within the state system. A free school can settle its own curriculum and contracts of employment. It can therefore open the way for those with unused knowledge to impart it in the classroom, and for volunteers to help with extra-curricular activity. Anyone can apply to set up such a school, provided they have sufficient educational and financial expertise within their core team, and the willingness to make a substantial time commitment. Parents, local businesses, and volunteers can all join in the enterprise, whose goal is to rescue children from disadvantage and once again to open the channels through which the social and intellectual capital of one generation can flow into the brains and bodies of the next.

In the past the British people have solved their problems in precisely that way - not by handing them over to the government and then forgetting about them, but by sorting things out for themselves. The philanthropic middle classes, who created our education system and made it one of the best in the world, have been for too long excluded from it. But they possess the knowledge that we need, as well as the time and the energy to hand it on to our children. Bring them back into the system, allow them to do whatever is needed to impart their assets to the young, encourage them to raise funds, to recruit volunteers, to expand the curriculum, and all children will benefit. In the conflicts over education all sides have claimed to be extending opportunities to the poor. But the politicians are at last beginning to recognise that opportunities are not increased by closing things down, but by opening things up.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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Here is a selection of your comments

It is clear from this that the author does not considered valuable for a teacher to be trained in the science and art of teaching and imparting knowledge into students. Pedagogy and teaching is a unique and nuanced skill that takes years to master. Implying that anyone can do it if they have subject knowledge is naive, as is the statement that teachers do not have knowledge anymore as a degree has for a long time been a minimum requirement. I am a teacher with a PhD and very good subject knowledge, but without training in teaching I would have just lectured university style to a class of 11 year olds and wondered why it was not working.

James Saunders, Buckingham, UK

Like Roger Scurton I came from a poor background and went to a grammar school with a long historical past. On leaving school, I had to contribute to the family income and managed to find a student apprentice post with a weekly wage. Over a five year period on a 50:50 basis I work in a company and studied at a College of Advanced Technology to qualify as a chartered engineer. After working in industry as a project engineer, I moved into the teaching profession. I am now retired having worked as a university lecturer, researcher and consultant for 36 years. During that time, successive Secretaries of State for Education have compromised our state education system by making their own mark based on political bias.

Peter Warner , Chartridge, Buckinghamshire

I agree with the writer. I am the founder of a homework club, we provide extra support to school aged children in the three core subjects. The tutors are adults from all walks of life, and we have secondary school aged children as tutors for primary level children as well. This set up seems to be be working as we have being established for 14 years and have a long waiting list, even though we do not advertise. The theme of the club is that Older brothers /sisters help younger brothers/sisters. We have had objection from teachers. But we have ignored them. The plan is to use this method in isolated parts of Africa where good teachers are not easily available and children have to walk miles to school.

Raj Patel, Leicester

I am fed up with hearing how bad our education is and how we are failing according to PISA and international league tables. The full story is never told. The conditions of assessments are not standardized and we are not comparing like with like.

Melanie Tye, Ilford, Essex

Roger Scruton does what philosophers do best - he asks interesting questions and gives the wrong answer! He seems to have a very idealistic view of the English village, ignoring the social engineering-cum-indoctrination practised by many school-founders then and now.

Philip Anderson, London, England

I absolutely agree, Confusion exists as to what education really is. It is not just a process of book learning or information delivered by rote or otherwise. It is the passing on of expertise and mentoring. The result of this confusion is an insidious false premise that imprisons people. It imprisons them to believe they are educated when in fact they are not. If it were not so tragic, it would be funny, I respectfully submit.

Albert Labos, Gibraltar

I home schooled my son after discovering, on return from working abroad, just how poor the local schooling was. I got him through good GCSEs a whole year earlier than his contemporaries. Far from being supported or credited with saving the taxpayer the cost of his education, I had to pay his exam fees and a hefty 'administrative charge' for him to sit them at a local school (where he was entitled to go). The education industry does have a political agenda and is much more concerned with protecting the jobs and privileges of its members than with the success of their students. I suppose I was lucky that I was allowed to home school (unlike in Germany) but the chances of a more flexible and effective school system emerging is depressingly small.

John, Tiverton, Devon

I do not believe that the government strictly stands in the way of wider community participation. Rather, it is the administrators of state schools themselves that largely see parents as interfering, as they claim it is the teachers who are the professionals and know what children need. State schools are walled gardens, which the adults inside guard jealously lest their shortcomings be discovered. This is not state edict, but teachers wishing to conceal themselves from the gaze of the wider community.

Clive Bruton, London

As an admissions tutor for a Russell group University, I have 150 or so undergraduate places on offer each academic year. Of those 150, 80 are reserved for state schools under current government targets, 10 are reserved for independent schools, while 60 places are available for overseas students. To make my targets for state schools, I have to reduce the offer for those candidates. Insofar as overseas candidates are concerned, I reject about 100 candidates who on paper far exceed the qualifications of the state school candidates. So I am obliged to admit students on the basis of government targets rather than ability. The above might be fine, save the fact that overseas students pay £18,500 per annum and work hard. My experience of many UK students is that they complain about the fees that they pay and don't work as hard nor do they have the same level of knowledge. The above problem has much to do with attitudes as the obstacle rather than government, businessmen and/or teachers. One attitude to change, which the above article fails to acknowledge - is that we in the UK are no longer world leaders. Perhaps we should now look over our shoulder at those successful nations and observe how their governments, teachers and parents deliver education.

Langley, London

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