For most of the past 150 years education for the many has been of little concern to central governments. This government is determined to be different. The prime minister explains its mission for diversity with excellence in schoolsby Tony Blair / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
As a country, we value continuity as much as change, and are often right to do so. In education, we can be proud of parts of our inheritance: some of the best universities in the world, many excellent schools and dedicated teachers. But when it comes to education for the broad mass of people, we must confront our past, not continue it. We must understand why we reached the end of the first century of universal state education with nearly one in four adults lacking basic literacy, the worst figure in Europe after Poland and Ireland; ranking 17th in international maths assessments for 13 year olds; with low average standards and widespread indifference to achievement.
Cultural forces have played a part. So too has an economy built on mass manual labour, with little premium on higher skills and too little innovation. These themes are well rehearsed by historians and economists. But there is another factor: political indifference and lack of leadership. For most of the past 150 years, mass education has been of only fitful concern to Britain’s political leaders of left and right. Central government has taken scant interest in standards and investment, often dismissing them as local matters.
Gladstone, who delivered the first of these Romanes lectures, is a telling case. He was one of our great prime ministers, but not a great educational reformer. At a time when leading continental states-Germany in particular-were forging ahead in primary and technical education, Gladstone’s Liberal governments went no further than to allow local ratepayers to set up primary schools if they wished. Gladstone rejected compulsory schooling as “adverse to the national character,” opposed the abolition of fees in primary schools, and feared that, even at its then paltry levels, state education spending would explode. His Romanes lecture-delivered in 1892, by which time Britain’s educational failings were apparent-was an erudite history of the ancient universities, with not a hint of concern about the world beyond.
Britain’s weakness in mass education was the subject of sustained commentary among the Victorians, by royal commissions and others, as it has been ever since. Yet the political will to act was never adequate. When in 1839 Lord Melbourne’s government made the first state grant for schools-equivalent to a tiny fraction of what Prussia was then spending-the minister responsible told parliament that English education was “very inferior” to that of northern Europe. Yet it was…