Photo by Sally Anscombe

The sad, slow death of state schooling

The decline in standards has been dismayingly avoidable

Artillery Row

Crumbling concrete dragged education onto the news pages recently, but it’s not that kind of crumbling people should be worrying about. If the state is actually still running schools in 2050, I will be very surprised, not least because I’ll be dead. The demise of state schooling feels every bit as inevitable as my own.

It’s like arguing road accident data is a useful proxy for alcoholism

The rot started with the expansion of comprehensive schooling in the sixties because comprehensive schooling has never had anything to do with education at all. It was always, and remains, an entirely political endeavour. There is no research I am aware of which argues convincingly that abandoning selection by academic ability is an educationally beneficial strategy. The world is awash with credible, international research that suggests grouping children by their tested ability, at some point as they grow up, has future educational benefits for them.

Spend time reading the anti-grammar school research which has attracted funding and hungry consumers, ever since recalcitrant voices rose about grammar schools and social mobility. You will find it always relies on an identical and entirely political justification, literally and with glorious irony: for the many.

GCSE exam results are compared between grammars and comprehensives; statistics about children on free school meals are always used as a proxy for “educational disadvantage”; uncomfortable performance results are “accounted for” or “adjusted” when they don’t quite fit the researchers’ forgone conclusions that all grammar schools are bad. Researchers in the field are especially fond of claiming they have taken into account the difference between pupils, prior to their joining a grammar or a comprehensive school. They blithely pass off phrases like “once their intake differences are taken into account”, or “other characteristics have been accounted for”, as though we should just trust their superior judgement about such immensely significant adjustments.

I am not prepared to take any researcher seriously who thinks they can pass off free school meals data as any kind of credible proxy for educational disadvantage. What an incredibly insulting assumption to the child on free school meals, who works hard at school and reads books at home. It’s like arguing road accident data is a useful proxy for alcoholism.

In the end, all this research relies on exactly the same crudely technocratic, political justification: more children would get better GCSE results if there were no grammar schools. You get what you pay for; lobbyists masquerading as researchers are hardly unique to education.

The most damaging long term effect of comprehensive schooling has been the widespread acceptance of them as political institutions. That acquiescence by the public opened the doors for all kinds of individuals and organisations with specific agendas, to exploit them for political purposes. Some of those exploiting them have successfully usurped the role of parents, and a reluctant government has been forced to intervene in the gender wars (albeit toothlessly). Only now has a fight back begun, but it is way too late.

The fatally weakened status of state schools was exacerbated by the teaching unions and parliament jointly, when they effectively hamstrung them during Covid — a disaster from which they will never recover. Crumbling concrete is the least of their worries when many thousands of children have chosen never to return to school, and many parents decided they don’t care. The ones who still do are increasingly turning to tutoring or even home schooling, when faced with the reality that their children are vulnerable to all kinds of unwelcome political messages when the school is in loco parentis.

Having books was twice as important as the father’s education level

Above all, the reason state run schooling will inevitably die out is because the technology industry wants it to. Teachers and especially school leaders have never grasped who has really been pulling their strings these last few decades. The influence Silicon Valley has over politicians of all parties is quite extraordinary. Under Labour’s much trumpeted Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), technology was seriously supposed to “transform” education. Huge sums were spent on machines and software that delivered no educational benefit, besides having the shelf life of a lettuce. The industry loves to use that word “refresh” when what they mean is “re-spend”.

One of the best pieces of educational research I know is a huge longitudinal study, Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, by Mariah Evans at Nevada State University. Over 20 years and looking at 27 different countries, Evans found the presence of books in the home was by far the best single predictor of any child’s educational success. It went far above and beyond such factors as the education level of the parents or the country’s GDP. Having books in the home was twice as important as the father’s education level, more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States. Yet Labour lavished £1,475 per pupil on technology under BSF, and not one penny on books.

I’ve often struggled to understand why educators can’t see the lurid technocratic puppet strings they are forced to jump to. At a conference a few years ago when I made this point, an ex-teacher for whom I have a lot of respect simply dismissed it with a wave of a hand. They had no business or technology experience whatsoever, but would not even entertain the idea that Silicon Valley is really where changes in schools originate. I think now this has something to do with the confidence many teachers have on account of their subject knowledge. It’s not that uncommon for them to extrapolate from that to think they know a lot more than they really do. Asking teachers or school leaders for their opinions on mobile phones or online learning is like asking accountants about calculators.

Sad though it is to admit, I am quite sure what we are witnessing at the moment are the first signs of the abandonment of schooling by the state. With support from the teacher unions, politicians will shorten the school week through online learning, whilst claiming they are modernising and preparing children for 21st century careers. They will turn schools into multi-social service hubs, offering everything from vegan breakfasts to hypnotherapy, before the occasional citizenship or sociology lesson then justify it by saying they care. Cheer up, though. Real schools, where maths is taught by teachers with a maths degree and Latin isn’t sneered at, schools that coach sport seriously along with drama and music, will still exist for the wealthiest — and any MP who cares about their own children, naturally.

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