Lloyd George is a false model

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
While I am always pleased to see The TES pay attention to the history of education, I am disappointed to see it represented with as many inaccuracies and misleading statements as are present in James Bartholomew's article on the perceived failure of state education (TES, November 19).

One should not trust any argument that draws the majority of its evidence from the experiences of one individual, in Bartholomew's case, the life of David Lloyd George. Very few individuals from humble backgrounds followed in Lloyd George's footsteps. Of his contemporaries, fewer than 2 per cent of politicians, 4 per cent of senior civil servants and 7 per cent of academics came from a working-class background.

Whatever the problems of modern state education might be, it is far more conducive to social mobility than the Victorian system of education that Mr Bartholomew seems to admire.

Literacy did improve massively during the Victorian era, but only because the statistics started at a very low base and the Victorians had a particularly forgiving definition of what constituted literacy.

Moreover, Mr Bartholomew misleads the reader by omitting to point out that government involvement in education dates from 1833, when the state began to provide funding for independent schools, which were often unable to support themselves.

However, the system of government support for independent schools ended due to the overwhelmingly poor quality of these institutions. One government inspector found, in 1859, that in north Wales, only 77 per cent of schools were teaching their scholars to read, and a mere 63 per cent of schools were teaching arithmetic.

These schools were often kept by untrained teachers, of whom one inspector commented that "none are too old, too poor, too ignorant, too feeble, too sickly, too unqualified in any or every way, to regard themselves, and to be regarded by others, as unfit for school-keeping".

The buildings were scarcely better, often unlit and unventilated, sometimes without any sanitary facilities. Thus, although education was neither free nor compulsory for the first 25 years of state schooling, parents deserted the private sector in huge numbers because state schools were frequently better than their private equivalents.

The sole reason why British education is dominated by the state sector at the beginning of the 21st century is 135 years of consistently high performance, evident to anyone who examines the historical evidence without a conclusion already in mind.

Jacob Middleton Rose Cottage Foster Street Harlow

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