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The case for not leaving education to the teachers

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

Peebleshire classroom, 1930sSince 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.

Anthony CroslandEventually 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.

_73434978_harrowThe 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.

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.

Read the full post on BBC News

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