The pace of change is now so great that it is no longer enough for schools simply to transfer to the next generation the wisdom of earlier times; they have to start a dynamic process whereby pupils are weaned of their earlier dependence on institutions, and given the confidence to manage their own learning1.
It is only recently that schools have come to so dominate the lives of children. Certainly the Acts of 1944 and 1988 didn’t expect schools to do it all. However, as society has become ever more preoccupied with its own, adult, affairs so schools have been forced into picking up the bits. They were never designed to do this. “What is needed”, wrote the influential American Peter Drucker in 1993, “is a reassertion of the original purpose of the school. It is not about social reform, or social amelioration. It has to be all about the individual’s learning”2. How have we got into this muddle? A brief recap; primary schools have still to escape from the “poor relation dependent on charity” image. Secondary education was only rescued from centuries of decay by the invention of the Public School, whose immediate attraction was more to do with their social exclusiveness than any deeper interest in the value of academic study. Once the country decided in 1902 that a national system of secondary education was needed, the new grammar schools became more a watered-down version of a public school, than a conscious preparation for a new form of society. Given England’s continued reluctance to take education as seriously as do many other countries, all forms of state education have been developed until very recently “on the cheap”, a situation made possible by a vibrant, alternative independent sector able to charge almost whatever fees it wishes, and currently educating some 7% of the population3.
The 1944 Education Act confirmed that secondary schooling would be funded with better buildings, smaller classes, and better qualified teachers than primary education. It did something else. While the public schools saw the age of 13 ½ as being the best age for transfer, the 1944 government was so unsure of its ability to provide education for all beyond fourteen that it defined the age of transfer to secondary as eleven. Even though the school leaving age was subsequently raised to fifteen, then sixteen, and now, in effect, to eighteen, the age of transfer in state schools has remained at eleven. This historic compromise has never been justified in educational, or in child developmental terms, yet remains unquestioned despite the damage this often does to the emotions of children.
In the light of what is now known about how children learn this is literally upside-down. This might have made sense when society only needed a minority of “bright” people, with the majority equipped only with rudimentary skills. It makes absolutely no sense in today’s world where a lack of confidence in learning, even within a minority of people, creates a drag on the whole country. But that is only part of the problem. If children’s confidence in themselves as learners falters they come to see learning as moderated through a teacher, so creating “a dependence on school, and a superstitious addiction to a belief in its methods”. Having created that dependency in the early years of schooling that dependency only increases in secondary schools when pressure for good examination results leads to smaller class sizes, and the persistent charge of “spoon-feeding” to improve examination results. Which raises a key question; is the secondary school’s malady simply a bad cold, or a terminal cancer? Is it a matter of ever bigger and more expensive buildings, or of a fundamental change in the way in which we treat adolescents? Without that there can be no valid design brief.
The need for Subsidiarity shows why this is an upside-down system needing to be picked up, and reversed. It shouldn’t be necessary to say it again: it is the child that is so stimulated by all that happens in the community who comes to school enthusiastic to learn; it is not the other way round. But the collapse in community presents us with terrible problems. The statistics make grim reading. While Britain has the world’s fifth highest GDP, we spend only 5.1% of that on education, which places us midway amongst the developed countries. In terms of “child well-being”, however, Britain ranks only twenty-first out of twenty-five European nations. That has to be shocking. British children eat fewer meals with their parents than in any other European country. Only two thirds of children speak to their parents several times a week and fifteen-year-olds get drunk more often than any other European country, and they are the most promiscuous.
The problem goes far beyond the collapse of the family to the way in which so many of our communities have been stripped of all that once gave them meaning. In the name of economic efficiency village stores and village schools have been closed; small farms amalgamated, mechanised and turned into agribusiness; industrial manufacturing sent off-shore to Romania, and small craftsmen made redundant by our inclination to throw away something that earlier we would have had repaired. Communities that once pulsed with life throughout the day have become lifeless dormitories. People who don’t know each other, don’t trust each other, and where children have few opportunities to discover appropriate role models.
We earnestly talk about the need to prepare youngsters for life, and we rightly extol the virtues of work experience. But schools are now facing a crisis — there are just not enough jobs within reach for children to study, even for a week. That’s the measure of England’s problem. If youngsters perceive their future employment as being so totally separate from any contribution it might make to the well-being of the community, then democracy will be ever more dominated by spin-doctors seeking to create policies that are simply a response to people’s economic needs.98