Hold that champagne! Despite more than 100 years of state education, the politicians deserve only a C grade and 'could do better' verdict for all the changes they have made, explains Gary McCulloch
As we mark a new millennium, should we associate schooling with celebrations or with hangovers? Should we reach for champagne or for indigestion tablets? And if we took a break from charades and turkey sandwiches to look back at how schooling has progressed over the 20th century, what final grade would we give to it?
Where would education fit in a league table of social changes, and what value did it add to the lives of all those who have endured and benefited from it along the way?
In terms of sheer activity, and the advances it has made over the century, many would say that it deserves a straight A. In 1900, schools and schooling occupied a marginal place in the life of the nation, and were little more than a bothersome distraction in the childhood of most young people. A century later, schools have become a central concern in policy and society, with an inescapable and pivotal influence over children and youth.
The role of the state has expanded enormously over that time, while the responsible government department has been redefined and renamed at an accelerating pace, from the early days of the Board of Education founded in 1899, to the Department for Education and Employment as the century approached its end.
Pupil numbers have grown exponentially, the school-leaving age has steadily advanced, and the demands of the system have meant increasing numbers of teachers, administrators and schools, all part of an "education industry" that has become integral to the welfare state.
The elementary schools that provided for the mass of the population in the early years of the century gave way to primary schools, just as the provision of secondary education to a small elite was replaced by secondary education for all.
At the same time, the apparatus of testing burgeoned to underpin a national system of examinations, the trappings of a meritocracy, that made it possible for the Robbins Report of 1963 to seek to extend higher education to all those capable of benefiting from it.
In another way, we might chart the progress of schooling not through As but with a set of Bs. The major Education Acts of the century, at roughly 40-year intervals, have each been presided over by Conservative politicians.
Balfour's Act in 1902 established state secondary education on lines that were to remain fundamentally unchanged, with the centre and the new local education authorities sometimes as partners, and often as rivals and antagonists.
Butler in 1944 consolidated a national system of primary, secondary and further education. Lastly, Baker's Education Reform Act, passed in 1988, ushered in a national curriculum while also seeking to encourage the "choice" and "diversity" that were the hallmark of the Conservative policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Labour party pantheon of educational reform, thinly populated, has been dominated by two Cs - Crosland in the 1960s and Callaghan on the strength of his call for a "Great Debate" in 1976.
Two new Bs, Blair and Blunkett, have belatedly emerged with the Labour Government elected in 1997 to try to wrest the mantle of effective educational reform from the Conservatives for the first time in more than a century.
In the end, though, it is the letter C that is most characteristic of schooling in the 20th century. Underlying the changes that have taken place there have been the forces of conservatism, tied in with caution and continuity.
Academic selection through devices such as intelligence testing and the 11-plus has also engendered controversy. The curriculum and the classroom, marked out as key agents of change, have remained recognisably constant throughout these 100 years.
Different types of curriculum have been created for different social groups, symbolised most clearly in the "types of mind" identified in the notorious Norwood Report of 1943.
The educational and social inequalities that were so clearly marked at the beginning of the century, too, proved much more stubborn than was expected even by RH Tawney, the great interwar socialist critic, who railed at the "mischievous ghost" of "an obsolete tradition of class superiority and class subordination".
This ghost was to rattle its chains for the rest of the century, just as it haunted the corridors of urban schools built for a former age.
Gender-based inequalities were also evident in the character of mass provision, as indeed were longstanding inequalities of different ethnic groups towards the end of the century. Disabled pupils were labelled in many different ways, from handicapped to special needs, but they were persistently marginalised or even ignored.
Distinctions between the academic or liberal curriculum and the vocational and technical curriculum, highly familiar 100 years ago, are just as widespread today. The so-called "English disease" of economic and industrial decline, so often blamed upon the failures of the schools, has been the object of attention in the 1980s and 1990s perhaps more than ever before.
Meanwhile the independent schools, far from accepting their allotted fate as victims of the growth of state activity, have survived and even prospered in changing conditions.
So far as the lived experience of schooling is concerned, the record is again decidedly patchy. For every former pupil who has celebrated their schooldays as the best days of their lives, another has emerged disillusioned, alienated or rejected.
The lessons learned at school in the first half of the century were stored up for later use as politicians from both major parties queued up to recast the whole system from the 1970s onwards.
At the beginning of a new century, we may seek as always to turn over a new leaf. The final grade, a C, may be disappointing but the pupil still shows promise. "Could do better", a phrase that has recurred in school reports so often that it is etched in the brain, might be the most apt epitaph for the past century of schooling. Hold that champagne, and grab some Alka-seltzer.
Gary McCulloch is professor of education at the University of Sheffield, and editor of "History of Education". His recent work includes "Failing the Ordinary Child?"