Held back by history: England’s love of free markets keeps our school system divided and backward

Andy Green

This month’s OECD Survey of Adult Skills revealed, yet again, the shockingly low levels of basic skills of many young people in England compared with their counterparts in other countries. Like the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), conducted 16 years ago, it shows that England has an exceptionally large proportion of adults with very low levels of literacy and numeracy – the so-called long tail of under-achievement. But more disturbingly, the new report reveals that there has been little improvement amongst our 16 to 25-year-olds during a period when their peers in other countries have advanced rapidly.

Uniquely, in England there is very little difference in skill-levels between age groups, and yet inequality in adult skills, measured by the variance in the scores, is still worse than in almost every other country.

Politicians have responded by bickering about which administration is most to blame – the Coalition or New Labour. But, as the comparison with the IALS results shows, this is beside the point since national performance in the mid 1990s was also relatively poor. In fact the relative failure of mass education in England has a long history, implicating governments of all complexions, with deep political and cultural roots which are not amenable to quick policy fixes.

As I argued in my book Education and State Formation – first published in 1990 and now re-issued in an extended edition ­­– England was one of the last major powers to develop a national education system and the most reluctant to put it under state control. This relative underdevelopment in state education, which to informed 19th century commentators seemed so anomalous in the world’s most industrialised nation, had a number of historical causes.

Whereas educational development in many advanced countries was driven by an intensive process of nation-building, in Britain the state was already largely consolidated, so there was little incentive to use public education for this purpose.  Successful early industrialisation, owing little to educational provision, taught the wrong lessons, and enabled deep complacency about the importance of skills to economic development. That this was a problem only became evident to the elites during the “second industrial revolution” in the late 19th century, when Britain’s shortcomings in applied science and craft skills  became self-evidently a major barrier to industrial innovation and efficiency. It was the belated recognition of England’s relative skills deficits that finally spurred the construction of a public education system.

Underlying all other causes of England’s educational backwardness, however, was the pervasive culture of political and economic liberalism, with its veneration of free markets and hostility to the state. This deep-rooted individualist creed blocked the development of national education for many decades after it had become obvious that voluntary provision – by Churches and charities – could not meet the educational needs of the people or the economy.

It also left a potent legacy. The public education system finally put in place at the end of the 19th century remained exceptionally fragmented and socially divided, with elite interests still dominating in the provision of secondary education – not least through private schooling – and with technical and vocational education still fatally undervalued.

These underlying flaws in the organisation of mass public education have never been rectified. Comprehensive education – introduced half-heartedly and with so much organisational variation that it never looked like an integrated national system – is now being dismantled. There was no national curriculum until 1988, more than a century and a half after most continental nations had one, and it has now been made optional for thousands of state-funded schools.

We are the only country in the world to persist in the absurdity of having national examinations organised by commercial organisations. And since the 1980s, all governments have been hell-bent on marketising education, creating, in the name of diversity and choice, a byzantine complexity of school types, and a school “system” so fragmented that it barely warrants the name. As a consequence, the idea of education as an essential public good is progressively undermined, and the inequalities which have always been the hallmark of English education become ever wider.

I concluded the first edition of my book with a clear warning to policy makers:

“If the past has any lessons at all it is that the mechanisms of the market and the ideology of laissez-faire serve education very ill indeed. It would be a sad irony if the country which was last to create a national education system, and which never quite completed the job, should be the first to dismantle it. It remains to be seen whether, in the name of market liberalism, England again becomes the ‘worst educated country in Europe.”

After three decades of reforms, which draw on a failed 19th century liberal model of education for inspiration, we are now where we have always been, with an education system which serves the elites but manifestly fails to promote a high standard of education for all. With such policies our performance relative to other, rapidly improving, countries can only deteriorate, with England’s labour force starved of the skills to compete effectively in the global economy.

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Education and State Formation: Europe, East Asia and the USA offers an explanation of the long-run causes of England’s relative educational underdevelopment. In its new chapter on Education and State Formation in East Asia, it also shows how the newly industrialised countries of the East are using education to overtake us.

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Posted in International comparisons
2 comments on “Held back by history: England’s love of free markets keeps our school system divided and backward
  1. 3arn0wl says:

    A clarion call for Comprehensives, a National Curriculum devised and implemented by the profession, and what, a substantive, quantitative Record of Achievement? I’d go for that! 😀

  2. Since the nineteenth century notions of national unity have been sacrificed in favour of national control. In education, schooling ‘systems’ – directed centrally but administered locally – were engineered to maintain divides between social classes. Education became a commodity which could be purchased, thus enabling the affluent to distance themselves from perceived ‘inferiors’ and to create a knowledge base which was self-perpetuating. Unfortunately, the schools catering for those not belonging to elite social groups have attempted almost invariably to emulate their ‘superiors’ rather than challenge traditional notions of academic ‘brilliance’ and develop the knowledge, understanding and skills that individuals and communities really need. The continuing debates over schooling structures simply reinforce privilege and stifle creative thinking and provision.

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