The Essence of a responsible society

“The biggest shake-up of education since the 1944 Education Act” proclaims the media while Mr Gove loses no opportunity to explain that this will revitalise the economy and strengthen individuals to accept greater responsibility for themselves.   We live, he and the Prime Minister tell us, in most difficult times.

The 1944 Education Act was born in difficult times; conceived by an academic Tory in the midst of war, it was actually birthed by a former communist by then the first Labour Minister of Education.  Its tentative first steps were guided by a new Minister, George Tomlinson, a man whose own education had ended at the age of fourteen.

While Ministers and their civil servants were sorting out the minutiae for a national system of secondary schooling (England being one of the last countries in Europe to do this) a most remarkable man – remarkable in the sense that he saw nothing remarkable in what he did – set out to explain in everyday language to the eight million men and women whose children would attend these schools, just what kind of education they would receive.

John Newsom set out his thoughts in what became a truly successful bestseller entitled The Child at School published by Pelican at one shilling and sixpence (7 ½ new pence).  Newsom reminded his audience of the most basic of all facts that “children are, first and foremost, children, they are only school children second.”  Then he wrote “Education is ultimately a political issue, for it is concerned with a child’s relationship to the world both as a child and a future adult.  In other words, until you have decided what the relationship between man and God or man and other men should be, and what form of political economic society you would like to see, you cannot tell what sort of education a child should have.”

“This is where the difficulties begin,” warned Newsom for “much of English education is a medicine sold under a label that does not tell you what it is intended to cure.  We have prescribed the physic for diagnosing what the patient needs, and sometimes its magic bottle labelled Education.  Cure for all Ills can have disastrous results, like many medicines which are taken too liberally, or for the wrong complaint.”

The English are uncomfortable when forced to define abstract principles, especially about something so personal as our own, or our children’s education.  Some cling to the metaphor of filling an empty mug, others of a potter at his wheel while some prefer the gardener with his watering can.  “Not good enough,” said Newsom to his eight million audience as they sat down of an evening to consider their own children; “you need to go back to John Milton with his ‘oft quoted “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously…”

Magnanimity was as interesting a concept to focus on for Newsom at the end of WWII as it had been for Milton as the Civil War raged around him and men fought to the death with their own sons.  Magnanimity means bigness of soul, generosity of spirit; it is about the moral courage which derides resentment, rancour or jealously.  It means developing personal strength so that you can support others.  It means going the extra mile.  Quoted by the humble, pipe-smoking John Newsom, it was about reminding parents that their children needed to grow up strong enough to develop personal courage, endurance, self-sacrifice, initiative, discipline and common purpose, as much in their private lives, as in their public responsibilities.  This was the Civil Society that the Puritans dreamed of, and which idealists in the late ‘40s still strove to create.  Why don’t we?

Newsom concluded “It is important to think a little about the purpose of education, before attempting to judge whether individual schools are doing their job properly or not.”  Over to you Mr Gove before you jump to too many conclusions based simply on objective statistics.  Magnanimity does not show up mathematically, but it is the essence of a responsible society.

See Chapter Nine of Overschooled but Undereducated