Education, Education, Education (and Subsidiarity)

Posted on June 17, 2011

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Swedish schools, anyone?

A question for readers: what is the difference between a Free School, an Academy, and a Swedish School? No, it is not that the latter boasts clog-shod teachers trained in ABBA dance routines, but that they are simply different names for what is essentially the same idea, introduced by the previous Labour Government, and extended and by the current Conservative-Liberal coalition. It is a simple idea: the schools are publicly funded but largely free from state control in their curricula and management. They can be established or taken over by groups of parents, businesses, charities, faith-based organisations, and a host of others.

Though they are not without critics, free schools are supported by those on both the political right and left, and are a rare example of a policy begun by one administration being enthusiastically promoted by the next.

Yet some who welcome this apparent recognition that central government is not necessarily best placed to take decisions about education will be less enthusiastic about Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s announcement that schools will now be required to reach a target of 50% of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE to avoid being branded ‘underperforming’.

Recently on this blog, in another context, we argued that: ‘A proper understanding of the principle of subsidiarity is critically important for good governance… the important thing is not so much that the task be performed by the lowest possible agent, but by the appropriate agent’.

It is worth asking what the appropriate level is for crucial decisions to be taken regarding the education of the nation’s children.

The first principle here ought to be obvious, but it is a truth which has become increasingly obscured and overlooked: namely, that parents are the first educators of their children, not only in the chronological order (which can hardly be denied), but, more importantly, in the moral order insofar as they always retain the primary responsibility (and the rights which go with it) for the education of their children – rights and responsibilities enshrined, for example, in the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It also seems reasonable that teachers and academics should help determine the aims, methods, and content of education. After all, parents send their children to schools precisely because they rely on the expertise of these people to assist them in giving their children a complete intellectual formation they cannot normally supply on their own.

But the appropriate role for central government vis-à-vis education is less obvious. ‘Britain’s children’ are, after all, not really Britain’s children at all, other than in an analogous sense, but children of their parents, and prudence would suggest that the State ought to exercise extreme caution before intervening in this area.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

Moreover, if the State were the appropriate agent to take important decisions about education, we might expect that on balance state intervention would at the very least not produce more harm than good. But I would ask the reader to consider some questions: 1) Since the introduction of the national curriculum by central government in 1988, has the overall quality of state education improved or declined?; 2) Since the introduction of school ‘league tables’ by central government in 1992, has the overall quality of state education improved or declined?; 3) Was the doubling of the budget allocated to education by central government between 1997 and 2010 followed by an improvement, or a decline, in the overall quality of state education?

The obsession with statistics and league tables – and even the idea that the performance of educational institutions can be quantitatively measured in much the same way as the success of sports teams – provides an example of how State intervention can be destructive of the proper aim of education which must surely be the realisation of the potential of each individual child.  For the educator, there is just as much value in helping a child who currently achieves D grades to achieve C grades as there is in helping a bright child who already achieves A* grades to improve even further. It is about helping the child realise his or her potential, not about boosting the school’s ‘ranking’ by hitting arbitrary targets. But in the ‘value-added’ league tables designed by our enlightened leaders, the act of helping a brilliant child improve further is valued as utterly worthless, but moving large numbers of children a few marks up from a D grade to a C can greatly enhance the reputation of school.

Whilst paying lip service to the idea that it is not the ideal agent for making decisions about education, the State has in reality simply substituted one form of control for another, the effects of which are perhaps even more damaging, and certainly more bureaucratic. It is understandably difficult for politicians, who have the same human weaknesses as the rest of us, to relinquish the immense power over the minds of the next generation that comes from having such a big say in how the education system is run. Yet, in the face of mounting evidence that we are now regressing to a state of affairs in which increasing numbers of students finish school only semi-literate, perhaps it is time for the State to take the philosophy behind free schools to its ultimate conclusion, and realise that sometimes the best thing to do with power, for the benefit of those under your authority, is to let go.

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(photo of clogs: © serilium; photo of Michael Gove: © Paul Clarke. No endorsement implied)

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