England’s government was unusual for not having really bothered about schools until about a hundred years after everyone else.
While America and Germany, and just about everyone else in the developed western world, created a network of publicly funded schools in the 19th century, England dilly-dallied.
It wasn’t until 1902 that a state board of education was created, and there were another 42 years before an education minister was appointed. By that time, 1944, America had just about half its population graduating high school at 18. In England, staying in school until that age still isn’t compulsory.
Why were we so behind? In part it was because neither political party liked the idea of free mass schooling. Both Conservatives and Liberals feared landowners and industrialists, who paid the majority of the taxes, and who didn’t see the point.
Another, sometimes forgotten, part is that Britain was pretty busy with foreign matters. Owning an empire is a pretty time-consuming business and it took a huge amount of parliamentary time, with domestic matters largely left to inquiries and charities all through the 1800s while everyone else’s schools systems lurched forward.
Politicians are usually trying to make a name for themselves with whizzy ideas
Oh how naïve and backward that all now seems. Oh how we are about to go back to being exactly the same.
There were just two lines in the Queen’s Speech about education and, of those, one was about post-16 occupation-related qualifications. In essence, all we got was: we’ll carry on looking at the fair-funding formula and we’ll carry on making sure more good places are available. That was it.
Perhaps, however, this silence from government will do us good. While the bigwigs return to age-old wars over “sovereignty” or the cost of sending cheese to far-flung places, the rest of us can get on with just, well, doing stuff.
Many of the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments don’t actually need any legislation. They’re just ideas. Improving school accountability can be done by changing the SATs and making them fit for purpose, as Jill Wood, the headteacher standing up against the exams has urged. A single jobs portal, in order to save money for schools, is an IT problem, not a legal one. Likewise, developing more curriculum materials.
Perhaps the most powerful idea of all is the review of admissions policies. The Conservatives put this in when they were planning to make it about grammars and free schools. Maybe now is the time to have a proper, open consultation. One which asks what the current problems of admissions are, and how we should solve them. And then – shock horror – the government might actually just base its policies on what people actually say, rather than what it already presupposes the answer to be.
I appreciate that this sort of open policy-making is rare in education. That is because politicians are usually trying to make a name for themselves with whizzy ideas. But now that Brexit is going to take up all the parliamentary time and headlines, the best way for Justine Greening (or any successor) to make a name will be to do actual, genuine good: listen to people and implement the things the people on the frontline tell you they need.
Dilly-dallying was a pain in the 19th century. It put us behind. But being patient with education over the next two years could prove to be the best possible outcome for the bizarre situation this country has found itself in.