At this time last year, Ian Hislop gave us his Canterbury Tales, an account of the Church of England during the past 100 years that may have surprised viewers who know Hislop chiefly as an irreverent participant in Have I Got News for You. Not only did he approach the subject with unexpected gravity, he also revealed a thorough knowledge of it. This relatively brief history of the institution managed to give a clear view of the main developments, illustrated with significant but quite obscure examples. The programme's researchers also found excellent archive film to accompany Hislop's commentary.
The hint of wry humour was still there in Hislop's facial expression as well as his words. And it can be seen again in this new three-parter on education, which covers the period from the 1870s more or less to the present day. This time, he has set himself an even harder task, because the one thing that characterises British education is diversity.
In fact, the Church of England, which is still Hislop's special subject, plays more than a small part in the story. But there are also progressive schools, public schools, grammar schools, secondary moderns and comprehensives. There are schools where upper-class parents used to pay for their children to be beaten and schools where working-class children went on strike in 1911 to protest against the cane. There are progressive schools in the private sector and in the public sector, where the extremes join to offer the same curriculum of do-as-you-please.
In the last programme, Hislop reveals his own recipe for reform and abandons his broadly historical account: former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker will be disappointed to learn that his efforts do not rate a mention.
The first two programmes are a lucid account of educational attitudes up to the 1940s, and tell their story with a powerful mixture of archive film and testimony from witnesses, most of whom reveal what it was like to be on the receiving end of other people's pedagogical theories. Or not, as the case may be: "I was in the mill next morning at seven o'clock," one woman tells us, still harbouring resentment against the mother who would not let her take up a grammar school scholarship in the early years of the century.
The one consistent theme, from the first elementary schools to the former Eton head who went on to become head of Tony Blair's school, Fettes College, is corporal punishment. Some elementary school teachers between the wars would shake their pupils by the shoulders, knock their heads on the blackboard and employ pre-emptive caning for the whole class at the start of every school day. In contrast to this, progressive experiments at Prestolee in the state system, or Dartington Hall in the private one, gradually had an effect on attitudes.
The high point in the story is Rab Butler's wartime struggle to put through the most far-reaching reform of all, which resulted in the 1944 Act. This was also the one moment when Britain seems to have been close to a consensus on education. Hislop's account of this describes it simply and clearly, emphasising the compromises that Butler had to make.
It was Cyril Norwood, a classical scholar, who was responsible for the division into three classes of school, modelled on the three types of mind identified by Plato in The Republic.
"The lessons that have been learned are often the opposite of the ones that have been taught," Hislop says in the first episode, looking forward to the journey he is about to undertake. Whether, at its end, the lesson that he draws is the one that fits the evidence, is a question that each of his viewers will have to decide.
The journey, however, is a fascinating one, not least in the details it notes along the way and the people that Hislop meets - teachers, parents and pupils - who have somehow managed to emerge, if not entirely, unscathed from the hazards of British education.