When I started working as a secondary-school teacher in the UK, in the late 1970s, the system was already in difficulty. The two-tier grammar school / secondary modern system, introduced after the war with a promise of secondary education for everyone, had been abandoned, mainly because it had failed to give the children in the secondary-modern schools any form of useful education or training, trapping them in low-paid jobs after they left school. It had been largely replaced by comprehensive schools, which were not supposed to have any form of selection process at the entry point. In practice, however, the comprehensive schools had changed very little: a relatively small percentage of young people in the UK went to comprehensive schools in affluent, middle-class areas, or to grammar schools, which continued to exist in some areas, or to private schools, and a significant proportion of them gained academic qualifications that allowed them to go to university. Most children, however, went to schools that achieved very poor academic results; pupils that attended them had little chance of going to university, or moving up the social scale through gaining a well-paid job, but also did not receive any meaningful form of training for the type of work that they might eventually find themselves doing. Thus, the boys that I was teaching were quite legitimately able to ask me (and the other teachers) why they ought to co-operate, in view of the fact that their parents, and, in some cases, their grandparents had not learnt anything that had been of any use to them when they had attended secondary school.
Perhaps if it had just been up to me, my colleagues, the pupils, and their families, we would have been able to come up with some answers, and re-organised things so that the pupils became engaged in more meaningful activities. But even back then the views of the people who were actually in the classroom counted for very little; decisions about children’s education were being made elsewhere. These decisions found their way down to us through a chain of command, which started somewhere in the corridors of government, and went via local education authorities, examination boards, university entrance panels, school inspectors, head teachers, deputy head teachers, and heads of departments. Whereas, at a local level, it was obvious that the system had to be made more human, the decisions that were actually taken had the effect of taking away from classroom teachers the little room for manoeuvre they still had, and forced them to comply with a standardised programme, irrespective of whether it was effective or not. I stopped teaching in the state-funded school system around the time that a national curriculum was introduced, and since then testing, school league tables, targets, and points systems for schools have all been introduced. The system has become steadily more authoritarian in the sense that it has become more centralised; deliberately trying to make all children do the same thing at the same time, not making any allowance for the dynamics of each particular group, or the individual requirements of each child.
Part of the reason for this can be ascribed to the deep-rooted association between schools and the original campaign to improve levels of literacy. Schools are credited with being the main instrument responsible for teaching children to read and write, first in Europe and America, and then around the world. According to popular belief, early schools were often extremely authoritarian, making liberal use of corporal punishment, and not tolerating any dissent or disruptive behaviour from the pupils. Reading and writing is still regarded as being of unequivocal benefit, justifying almost any means to bring it about, and, as a further advantage, the authoritarian nature of the early schools was seen as a way of preparing people for the structured nature of work and employment in the newly-industrialising world.
These beliefs have become so ingrained that whenever any shortcomings are perceived in the education system, it is automatically assumed that they are due to insufficient regulation, and that they can be resolved by more schooling, and tighter controls. But what if the success of the early schools was not due to their authoritarian methods, but to something else?
When they were having their most striking successes, schools were not under the control of central government, but were still rooted in the community, receiving their funding from local institutions; most children were living in close-knit, extended families, school hours were short, children spent more time outdoors, and technology had had relatively little impact on everyday life. Children were in a situation in which everyone wanted them to learn to read; it was a clear goal, and when they achieved it, they received praise at home, and from everyone else in their community. The disciplined structure of the classroom was only one, relatively small, element in lives dominated by close family, relatives, nature, useful daily chores, and friends. Rather than concluding that an authoritarian approach to education works, it would be more logical to deduce that the warmth of the community helped to mitigate the coldness of the early classrooms, allowing children to acquire the reading skills that their parents did not have.
With this in mind, it seems reasonable to ask whether classroom-based education methods have had any other successes over the past one hundred and fifty years, apart from the initial increase in literacy. In fact, the way that schools have developed is a tacit admission that, for most people, they have not really worked at all; most of us studied mathematics, science, at least one foreign language, history, and other subjects for several years when we were at school – but the underlying assumption underpinning the school system is that we will not have grasped these subjects sufficiently to be able to pass them on to our children, each new generation is required to go to school to learn them all over again. This is in contrast to the historical precedent of communities being able to pass on accumulated knowledge of farming, crafts, household management, and everything needed for survival, without the need for specialist teachers, and special institutions. If it is the case that children respond primarily to love and kindness, and do not learn when in an impersonal and coercive environment, then it could be said that our education system set off in the wrong direction more or less at its inception.
In addition to the consequences that this has for each one of us on a personal level – we might not be as well educated as we think we are – it also has consequences for society as a whole. For example, it is not feasible for a society to value freedom, and protect the freedom of its citizens, when there is a lack of freedom in education, and children are taught to submit to authority from a young age, no matter how unreasonable it is in its demands.