To send your child to the local school, or decide to go private, is a question that splits families apart.  Is education primarily for private gain, or for the public good?  And, if it’s for both, how does this work out?  Although we rarely see it in these terms, isn’t this actually a question about our faith in democracy?

The season of party political conferences has ended.  There was also much talk of the kinds of society various politicians advocate.  In ways not spelt out, a new generation of publicly funded but semi-independent Academies could, some claim, transform English education.  At those conferences there was much talk about the loss of social capital, that nebulous, invisible set of relationships that all sides now seem to agree once held families and communities together, backed-up by democratically elected parish, urban and regional councils. Both social capital and democracy are slippery concepts.  Democracy is particularly fragile and is forever dependent on an educated public being able to hold politicians to account for the small print of their highly-vaunted political promises.

Democracy can’t flourish unless each new generation is well nurtured in the affairs of the mind, and appropriately inducted into the responsibilities of adulthood and the maintenance of the common good.  While some aspects of education can be taught and assessed objectively in schools (or academies) others, such as the ability to form balanced judgements, come from the experience of being so caught up in life itself that applied common sense grows through a young person’s daily experience of life’s ups and downs, at home, on the street or in a Saturday job.  The ancient Greeks called such commonsense “nous”.  Learning, it has been well said, does not involve timeout from productive activity, rather learning is the essence of productive activity*.

Today’s politicians, anxious to escape the bad press they and their predecessors have heaped upon schools through endless misguided reform initiatives, have rediscovered the word Academy.  Academy was a term used by the Greeks to describe a collection of scholars able to talk and reason amongst themselves.  In 1644 John Milton, the poet and philosopher, proposed to Oliver Cromwell replacing the strictly classical curriculum of the old Elizabethan grammar schools with Academies in which parity of esteem would be given to the development of artisan as well as academic skills.  Academies were to be an expression of the Puritan belief in an interdependent society, of linking thinking with doing.  Milton wrote: “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both public and private, of peace and war”*.  If ever there was a bold, no-nonsense statement about the development of the all-round person Milton had it.

Regrettably Milton’s dream died with him.  The Elizabethan grammar school, which once educated the likes of Shakespeare, Cromwell, Walter Raleigh and Milton himself, fell on hard times.  In the late eighteenth century the emerging merchant classes preferred their adolescent sons to grow to maturity either as midshipmen on the tossing decks of Georgian warships, or in the early practice of trade.   Humphrey Repton, the great landscape architect, was typical; “Father thought it proper to put a stopper to the vial of classical literature, having determined to make me a rich, rather than a learned man”*.

The Industrial Revolution was born, not in the half-empty classrooms of England, but in the dynamic relationship of apprentice to master in countless workshops up and down the land, at a time when thinkers had the incentive and practical skills to turn their theoretical ideas into things that worked.  They did well for themselves, those early entrepreneurs.  They had one very human failing – a failing well known to many of today’s parents – they wanted their children to have what they hadn’t had when they were young.  The inevitable happened, and they began to spoil their children who grew up to know nothing of the hard-learnt creativity of their parents’ generation.  It was Dr. Arnold of Rugby who provided indulgent parents with an elite Public School education where the curriculum was that of the ancient classical world unsullied by the practical, grimy skills that had created their family’s wealth.  Life for a young boy in a Victorian public school became totally disconnected from the life of the community beyond the school gates.  It still is.

Elite education in England has been for generations too often about private gain.  Disraeli not only described his own times (1845) but foretold the future when he said that England had become “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse, no sympathy; (whose citizens) are as ignorant of each other’s thoughts… as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets”*.

In 1870, a month or so before Parliament finally introduced plans for a national system of free education in England, the elite fee-charging public schools, with all the trust funds they had earlier appropriated from benefactors of old, declared themselves to be totally independent of any system designed for the ordinary child.  “Why (should I) maintain my neighbour’s illegitimate child”, wrote one public school headmaster, “I mean by illegitimate every child brought into the world who demands more than his parents can give him”*.  You can’t get more dismissive than that.

Half-baked educational reforms have plagued English education ever since.  It was not until the idealism of the Comprehensive secondary school broke upon an unenthusiastic country in the late 1960s, that any attempt was made to reclaim Milton’s dream of a national system of education as a pre-requisite for a just and democratic society.  Acknowledging the failure of the Eleven Plus Exam as an effective predictor of future academic potential, Parliament itself was unsure of what education theory and practice ought to inform such a system.  Parliament side-stepped this issue and delegated to individual local councils the hideously difficult task of imparting a sense of altruism into an increasingly self-centred society.

The problem was compounded in the 1980s when a Conservative government, responding to what they saw as the financial profligacy of local councils, transferred many of the earlier local responsibilities for education to themselves.  In doing so Parliamentarians superimposed on the already difficult issue of how children should be taught in such all-ability schools, the political tussle for control between local communities and central government.  As Parliament’s control grew stronger, community enthusiasm withered and teachers became ever less sure of their role.

If delegates at recent party conferences had known their history better they would have understood how this muddle had occurred.  If they could have seen far enough into the future they would have been forced to question how growing numbers of humans could live amicably in a world of static resources where communities continue to pull apart, rather than pull together.  Then they should have reached for their copies of Milton, and reminded themselves of his interdependent society.  Then they would have questioned whether introducing five thousand independent, parent-run schools comparable to Sweden, or expanding still further the semi-independent Academy model, or extending the school day so that parents would have even less time with their children, would in any way “fit” the children in their own communities “to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously”, both in private and in publics?

Parliamentarians should not simply look to the efficient administration of schools to ensure that there will be sufficient youngsters with the wisdom and energy to revitalise democracy.  As in all things, it’s not simply what you are taught that matters but what you pick up subliminally from what is going on around you.  Good democrats thrive in interdependent communities, but run out of steam in centralised, hierarchical institutions.

Until the English believe that in their public life as well as in their private affairs, democracy really does matter, they will never understand why every child matters.  Segregated education, either by ability or social class, may bring about short-term advantages to individuals but in the long run “altruistic groups beat selfish groups every time”.  (Evolution: Survival of Selfishness, New Scientist, November 3rd 2007).  It really isn’t different types of schools serving different kinds of children, that matters.  What is important is that communities wake up to realise that they have a potential influence on youngsters as potent as any school.  Woe to British democracy if we continue to ignore such an ages-old reality.

By Milton’s standards English education has overdone the search for ‘skilfulness’, and in the process forgotten ‘justice’ and ‘magnanimity’.  Simply sending our children to study as “visitors” in somebody else’s community is no preparation for the responsibility of adulthood, neither does it inculcate a passion for the common good.  Unless school, home and community quickly reconnect we will pass on a mean legacy to our children, and democracy simply won’t work.  Furthermore we have trivialised education by over-playing the role of the teacher as the instructor, and forgotten the individual child’s need to learn how to work things out for itself.