Tried and failed: the state system disaster

19th November 2004 at 00:00
What are the chances of a boy from a remote village in north-west Wales going to his local school and getting a good enough education to help him become prime minister? Is he likely to become expert in a school subject - any subject - by the age of 14? Could he become so conversant with scripture, for example, that he could quote relevant passages with ease for the rest of his life? Would he learn a foreign language well? Would his study of history take in Macaulay's History of England and Charles Rollins'

Ancient History? Might he have read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiment and be familiar with Euclid?

It seems unlikely. But that is precisely what happened - over a hundred years ago, before state education took over. David was educated in a church-aided school in Llanystumdwy founded by the Bishop of Bangor. He was particularly clever, to be sure, and his family was supportive. But the school helped him develop his potential. His full name was David Lloyd George.

Most people now have no idea of how widespread education was and what a high quality it attained before the state takeover. By 1860, when Britain was far poorer than it is today, at least 95 per cent of children attended schools for between five and seven years. What is more, the numbers at school and the time they spent there were rapidly increasing. All this was without any significant government help. As well as the church schools, there were private schools which were not for the rich but for everyone.

There were 3,754 of them in 1850. About a quarter of all working-class children at elementary school attended private schools.

Literacy was improving at a rate which would make a modern government's eyes water. A survey in 1865 showed that 80 per cent of adult marines and 89 per cent of seamen could read. But among the boys newly recruited into the navy from school, 99 per cent could do so. Then came the Forster Act of 1870. This led, quite unintentionally, to the destruction of the vast network of church-aided and private schools. They could no longer attract customers when the state was offering education for free.

Of course all the reformers,from Forster, to Lloyd George when he was prime minister, to RA Butler and Tony Crosland, expanded state schooling with good intentions. They wanted to spread the benefits of all levels of education to the least well off.

But in the event, the poor are the ones who have done worst out of it. The rate of "functional illiteracy" in Britain is now 20 per cent, according to the Government. That illiteracy is concentrated among poorer families. Only 1.7 per cent of children of unskilled workers have gone on to get university degrees. The poor are the ones obliged to go to the lower-achieving comprehensives. As Diane Abbott, whether you love her or loathe her, damningly said: "In Hackney schools, only 9 per cent of black boys get five decent GCSEs." Meanwhile, the best state schools tend to be hogged by middle-class and rich parents like Tony Blair.

The state takeover of education has been bad for teachers as well as children. They used to have far more respect and independence. They are now told by the state what subjects to teach and how. Headteachers are deluged with instructions and targets. There is a regular flow of visits from inspectors and advisers. Such advisers have, among other things, pressed on the staff methods of teaching reading which have proved appallingly ineffective.

Moreover, teachers are not allowed to discipline children effectively.

Because of other aspects of the welfare state, the children who come to them are not as well-behaved and motivated as they once were. Teachers have found their circumstances so unattractive that they have left the profession in astonishing numbers. There are currently 296,000 trained teachers of working age who no longer teach. The state has taken away two things that are vital to success in education: the power of parents to choose schools and the need for schools to compete to attract them.

State education has been tried and has failed. If British education is to give people like David Lloyd George a real chance again, we must return to something like the previous system: independent education for all.

James Bartholomew's book The Welfare State We're In is published by Politico's Publishing at pound;18.99.

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