The State Can't Teach

16th Jan 2000

Education - the means by which children are made aware of the world and by which knowledge is passed between generations - this crucial activity underpinning our society is being stunted, suppressed and debased by the State. For several reasons, it is impossible for one institution to provide both government and education.

Firstly, there is a conflict over funding. Every year we complain that not enough is spent on schools. But given all the competing demands on the Treasury how is the government to decide how much is enough? Parents, the consumers of education, certainly cannot determine the amount. Their one vote covers everything from fox-hunting to nuclear missile policy. All politicians can do is to placate the loudest pressure group at any given time. As various non-educational groups gain their demands, education receives less funding to the disadvantage of the children involved.

Secondly, state education inevitably makes upsetting changes to teaching and schooling methods. These waste the precious time of children who are never again so open to learning, and also confuse their understanding of a subject. Children need a consistent education over many years. Instead their school-days are prone to disruption by the politics of the moment. The National Curriculum, political correctness, the reduction in grammar, and the destruction of grammar schools have all hindered those trying to learn and made them feel like footballs in a politicians' game.

Thirdly, the State damages education by debasing its standards, as has been seen in the case of A-levels. The government has no qualms about faking the true worth of exam results because its overriding priority is to be re-elected. It has used various techniques including easier papers, lower grade thresholds, and the renaming of technical colleges to universities. Such lowering is designed to capture votes by making children seem to make progress thanks to a particular government.

Fourthly, the teaching of politics and ethics cannot be satisfactorily carried out by the government because it is impossible for the State to objectively teach viewpoints that contradict its basic premises. A state-educated child today will not be made aware of political theories that reject state education. Schools run by a highly regulated state will never give a fair analysis of laissez-faire capitalism. And today's governments cannot help but encourage art syllabi that are heavily biased towards altruism, since that is what the welfare state relies on. In addition, it is very difficult for people to hold alternative views and become state teachers. In all these ways, the Government necessarily censors ideas that could bring about its downfall.

The political aspect of government is clearly at odds with a decent education, but so to is its aspect of centralisation. This is disastrous for a country because it stifles new ideas in general. Effectively, through one office controlling what is taught and when, and who gets funding at university and so who writes the books for the next generation, we have a single narrow channel for most of our ideas. This inevitably results in a stagnant and restricted culture.

Centralised pay also works against the flowering of ideas by discouraging talented people who demand a fair wage from ever becoming teachers. With the state controlling wages, limited by grudging taxpayers, teachers' wages will never reflect their true worth on the open market.

For those dedicated enough to choose a career in teaching, centralised control brings a further hardship - the suffocation of their creativity. Since the National Curriculum this fact has become more obvious and led to numerous early retirements. Under its regime, teachers are forced to follow lesson plans and syllabi details ultimately directed by Whitehall. Teachers are denied the respect they once earned as professionals who could tailor their teaching to each class and pupil. Now they are more like civil servants, ticking boxes and making sure the government's requirements are served, prior to the children's.

Central control is not conducive to good education for another set of reasons, this time related to the consumers of education - parents and their children.

Each child grows up at a different rate and has different educational needs at different times. In classes run by the rules of one system, children are treated as if they were all made by the same cookie cutter. To both the brightest and the dullest students in a mixed ability class, education becomes a chore and not the key to a fulfilling life that it should be. The lessons are too easy for the former and too hard for the latter leading to animosity between the two types and to frustration in the teacher, who knows that both are let down. The middle pupils may find the pace suitable, but even they will be brighter or duller in different subjects. A system that does not cater for children of different abilities is out of touch with the reality of children's needs.

Parents' needs are also ignored by the State. They may for instance think that their son needs extra mental education and wish he didn't spend so much time at school doing sport. Perhaps they consider a private club more appropriate for physical education since it enables a wider social interaction and evades school bullies. Other parents may for example, consider pottery and motor mechanics, a waste of their daughter's time. Though the State may let them opt her out of those subjects, the parents still end up paying for them to be put on. This issue of parental choice leads to a broader indictment of state education.

Why is it fair that through taxation, any members of the community should be forced to pay for the promotion of ideas with which they disagree? For example, why should an oil-company employee fund an environmentalist course that is premised on the evil of big business? Or, why should a classical-style sculptor be made to pay for a course that equates his kind of work with that of abstract expressionism - an equation which he considers destructive of the very concept of art? And why should a principled atheist support the daily indoctrination of religion in his community? For the same reason that this country allows freedom of religious worship so it should allow freedom of conviction in education.

In summary, the State contains too much politics, too much central control and not enough freedom of choice for it to provide a fair and suitable education. The responsibility for training the minds of the country should be taken from the State and handed back to the private sector where those who benefit from it can control it by their own choices.

'But would that work?' Many people think that private education would be unaffordable. However, the money that pays for the current system will still exist, and also current prices are no guide to the future. They are inflated by the government's near monopoly which prevents market forces from operating. In a fully privatised system, a wide range of schools would be available with differing prices, hours and subjects, according to what parents, in their role as consumers, demanded. As schools adapted to attract parents, so new research into education would take place. Alternative methods of teaching would become more widely available as would varying class sizes. With a school in control of its own destiny, pride in its reputation would be engendered, and businesses would donate more to it, welcoming the association with a reputable institution.

The only remaining justification for state education is to provide lessons for those children whose parents are too poor or negligent to provide it for them. Under current law, parents are responsible for educating their children and so it should continue. Those who deny their children education are in a tiny minority and it is a mistake for us to create a system of state education simply to help them evade their responsibility as parents. The relatively few children involved, along with the few whose parents genuinely cannot afford to send them to school, can best be helped by charity. Such benevolent assistance would be even more forthcoming than today, because with the division of state and education, donors will know exactly where their money goes and will keenly support what they believe will create a prosperous and healthy country - good education.

- Henry Afton