Sunday, January 13, 2008

Education to the fore

Mr Forster's Education Act was one of the finest achievements of my administrations and, within a decade, let to the nationwide adoption of compulsory school attendance for all children, a measure that would have cheered the spirit of those such as Mr Dickens and my good friend Mr Kingsley, who for so long condemned the abhorrent treatment of our generation's littlest people. All this passed into law in spite of the regrettable perplexity of Her Majesty, who seemed at a loss as to why it should be necessary for all children to attend school and remarked that schools would not teach a gamekeeper to care for a pheasant but they might teach the children of gamekeepers to abandon the estates.

Our act created local school boards, some 2,500 of them, and introduced the possibility of compulsory attendance, which I was delighted to note, soon became the case across the nation.

So I can only welcome with great joy a circumstance in which a Liberal leader pays attention to education; even if I am somewhat puzzled as to what Mr Clegg perceives the problem to be after the achievement of so much progress in the last century. I suppose it must be the case that if the nation demands improvements to the schools, then good government will deliver those improvements, in preference, without adding to the sum of the taxation burden.

Indeed Mr Clegg echoes the themes of our own Liberal governments in developing a national education system. He talks of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation. Our local boards, elected by the populations of their districts, both men and women, were indeed dynamic, in setting up schools, in raising finance and in requiring the attendance of all children and they were successful to an extent that a few years after my "death" the Conservatives had to bring the Church schools into local board system, although in doing so they enlarged the scope of the boards.

If it is indeed true that Whitehall now seeks to run schools, Mr Clegg is right to condemn this. I am perplexed therefore that as his proposals unfold in his speech, delivered yesterday, he seems to assume more power for Whitehall; for in his plans Whitehall will determine how money is allocated between schools and Whitehall will determine how schools can choose their pupils: rather, Whitehall will determine that schools cannot select their pupils because government would rather have parents select schools. There is a logic to this because such a plan might make parents to be customers, who can choose the best for their children but I would remind Mr Clegg of the purpose of examination. It is indeed to create selection and children must inevitably face a situation in their lives when their examination results will lead to their selection, be it for work or for university study. It would be inconceivable for a modern university to allow a person to take an undergraduate degree in a subject for which they have shown no ability or talent. It may therefore be that some schools offer facilities for which only some pupils have the necessary talent.

In developing his theme, Mr Clegg suggests that schools could be created by bodies other than local education boards. Indeed I understand that municipalities have been so throttled by successive governments that they might struggle to raise finance to create their own new schools. I can only wonder what the nation has come to when the situation that pertained in the late 19th century has been reversed. For, in the wake of Mr Forster's Act, it was the local boards who proved more than competitors for church schools and indeed for the traditional public schools and grammar schools. If it is true that now, the only role of local education authorities is to exercise political and bureaucratic interference, as Mr Clegg intimates, then municipal and district government has come to a sorry pass indeed. Now Mr Clegg promises a "revitalisation" of local government. That is a wonderful thing to hear and he should set out how he plans to achieve it; for the tone of his speech is such that one might believe he does not think it is possible. Let me express a hope from the depths of my heart that this is a theme to which we may return.

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