'This rare and open mind';Book of the week;Reclaiming Education by James Tooley;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Sheila Lawlor, director of the think tank, Politeia

James Tooley bravely proposes that education should be privatised and reclaimed from the state. He rightly believes that the education system has failed to meet society's expectations in terms of equality, fairness and social cohesion, especially for the disadvantaged. In this book, he imaginatively sets out an alternative vision where privatisation will best meet growing demand for educational opportunities.

There are many in the world of education who dismiss market reform out of hand. It takes Tooley's independence of spirit not to be bullied into submission or cowed into subversion. For this, and for his intelligent responses to the interminable objections made by education professionals to such reforms (mainly from those whose pay cheques come from the taxpayer), he should be cheered. He has brought the Market, the "M" word - so off-message for the respectable in and out of the world of education - back to the centre of the debate, where it should be.

But there is a danger in Tooley's approach. He is principally concerned with education as a means to an end: equipping children for the challenges of the future and of adult life. He therefore concedes much ground to education professionals and officials for whom education, far from being an end in itself, is a means to an end. Since the Sixties, these people have been trying to set education free from what they see as narrow, unimaginative strategies that are unrelated to the real world. Tooley's scheme would probably achieve this goal far faster and far more comprehensively than the state has managed.

But there is another view of education, much held in this country until recently - and held by our continental neighbours to this day: that learning is an end in itself. Such a model was developed before governments took over, and it has all but ended in this country, dismissed by officials and professionals as irrelevant. The outward signs disappeared first: selective schooling, differentiated examinations and distinct courses. All that remains is the spirit, fighting for its life against a hostile state and a dominant bureaucracy.

But learning for its own sake trains the mind, civilises the spirit and inculcates the timeless virtues without which society will not be civil. It also imparts the kind of knowledge without which Britain will remain near the bottom of the international league tables for maths and in the bottom half for reading.

If there is a challenge for the future in this country, it is to allow once again for the proper inclusion of learning as an end in itself.

This could be best done with education vouchers - a mechanism about which Tooley is not convinced. I would encourage this rare and open mind from the world of education to think again. The market mechanism, via a voucher, might help us move more rapidly towards a system where learning is not only differentiated and determined by its relevance, but is valued for itself.

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