Skip to main content

The still point in an ever-turning world;Millennium Edition

To plan for education we need to take stock of the past, but whatever the third millennium holds it is teachers that we will depend on, says TES editor Caroline St John-Brooks

Sir Winston Churchill once remarked that in order to look forward intelligently, it was necessary to have looked backward perceptively. Today - December 31, 1999 - we are on the threshold of the third millennium. It's a time for visionary thoughts on the future of education in Britain.

But if it is to succeed in unlocking the potential of the whole population, we need to bring our understanding of the past to bear - as we have in this special millennium edition of The TES. We can trace recurring political and social themes, and identify the successes and failures of the last millennium, in the hope that we can learn from them in planning the future.

Education is always locked into the culture from which it arises, both reflecting it and constructing it. Through 1,000 years of British education, two elements have remained constant. Social inequality has not only been taken for granted, but has been structured into the school system as it still is today. And the raison d'etre for schooling has always been, at bottom, economic.

Medieval families wanted their children to continue in their father's business, and, at first, knowledge and skills were passed down the generations through the family. Schools began when, for reasons of economic advancement, children needed to know and understand things which their parents could not teach them. This was particularly true of Latin - which for the first 600 years of the last millennium was the lingua franca of Europe, essential for commerce, scholarship, and careers in the Church or in diplomacy.

As the centuries rolled on, the economic basis of education remained paramount - except among the upper classes, who had the financial freedom to study subjects which were unrelated to a career. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the great universities flourished, and at the same time the industrial revolution led to a huge population shift from the country into the towns - where opportunities for schooling and apprenticeships as well as work were better than in rural areas. These developments laid down the distinction between academic (for those with unearned incomes) and vocational subjects (for those who had to earn their living) which is still characteristic of our system today.

The Napoleonic ideal - that schools in France should educate everyone equally, as citizens of the republic - or the function that American schools quickly took on - that of teaching children from many different lands how to be good Americans - never really took root in England (although John Knox developed something of this philosophy in Scotland).

Unlike other countries, there was a real reluctance in the 19th century to educate the poor, for fear of the power that new knowledge and skills might give them. So the history of state education in England is one of piecemeal, reluctant expansion as more educated workers were required.

By and large, the social order has remained undisturbed - except that, as the result of increasing prosperity and an expanding economy, more and more people have been recruited into the middle classes on a meritocratic basis. Grammar schools, above all, embodied the idea that certain carefully selected members of the lower orders could be allowed to join the world of social status and economic affluence.

The wide sweep of a vision whereby everyone should be educated, for their own good and for the public good, has never been the English way. After the Second World War, for example, the failure to reform training and apprenticeships meant that the opportunity to set up a coherent system of vocational education for young workers was lost.

The past 90 years of educational development have been faithfully chronicled by The TES, which was first published in 1910. For most of that time - as Stuart Maclure, then the editor, pointed out in the paper's 75th anniversary edition - educationists were pressing for reform, while the politicians and industrialists blocked it.

But for the past 20 years or so, teachers have been the ones accused of dragging their feet, as they painfully come to grips with a world in which society demands that they teach every child effectively, no matter how difficult that might be.

For many years we grappled with the legacy of a mindset which saw education as a private good for which families should compete, rather than a public good to which everyone is entitled.

But today we have a Government which insists that all children have a right to be educated - and not just in basic skills either. The recent emphasis on literacy and numeracy has emerged because too many young people without these skills are cut off from further learning, as well as from productive and satisfying lives.

The key to success is what happens in the classroom - because however much we restructure the schools, social class still reasserts itself, and poverty blights children's learning. The new millennium offers us tantalising glimpses of a technological wonderland - global classrooms and institutions without walls. But when it comes to helping the young to learn, to understand and to think - only a real live teacher will do.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you