So, in the mid 1960s both Labour and Conservative politicians bowed (strange as it now seems) to the over-riding clamour from middle-class parents, and the teaching profession, to abandon the 11 Plus exam and create comprehensive schools which, like the primary schools, would educate all the children of the neighbourhood as they do with much success in the United States, Canada and in many European countries. Logical as that might have sounded Government sensed that the English – rooted as they are in their class assumption – made this a political hot potato. National government therefore decided to distance itself from the implications of the decisions it had taken “to go comprehensive”, and simply instructed each separate education authority to come up with its own reorganisation scheme. Rather like Pontius Pilate they washed their hands from what bound to happen next.
And it really did; the rubber (or rather all the bad decisions of earlier generations) really hit the fan. In city after city across the country thousands of former grammar schools stoutly refused to accept that they were now to be treated in the same way as were countless Bottom Street secondary moderns. Difficult as were the logistic problems these palled into insignificance in comparison to assisting (in a very standoffish sort of way) teachers at Bottom Street to teach A-level mathematics, or grammar schools to teach remedial English classes. Throw in questions about school uniform and rules, about rugby or soccer, team spirit or free choice, and the playing fields of England became soaked in the blood of a hundred civil wars, where those who saw education as an investment in the common good, faced those who saw it as a means to a private gain.
Forty years on the fighting continues. It has cost many billions of pounds and our complex, centralised and top-heavy system of schooling has slipped over the past four years from seventh place to seventeenth in reading levels, and from twelfth place to twenty-fourth in mathematics. In terms of child well-being the UNICEF Report of 2007 shows us as bottom of the twenty-one most advanced economies of the world. Whatever are we to do? Having spent all that money it is frustrating to see the Scandinavian countries, and Finland in particular, at the top of all those lists.
Finland should give us a clue. Long ago in 1638 the Czech philosopher Jan Amos Comenius wrote in the Great Didactic that, “Following in the footsteps of nature the process of learning will be easy if it begins before the mind is corrupted; if it proceeds from the general to the particular, from what is easy to what is more difficult; if the pupil is not over-burdened by too many subjects, and if the intellect is forced to nothing to which its natural bent does not incline it”.
And the significance of those fine flowing words for England? It is this. In the 1640s Cardinal Richelieu of France, John Winthrop the first Governor of Massachusetts, King Gustavus of Sweden and John Milton of England each invited Comenius to their countries to set up education systems based on his idea. Comenius favoured coming to England and working with Milton but the death of Oliver Cromwell destroyed that opportunity and instead he went to Sweden, of which at the time Finland was a key part. For four hundred years, while English education has never had an all-inclusive view of what an educated people should be, and so has become extraordinarily complex. Finnish education, however, has held true to Comenius’ ideas. Unlike the English the Finns don’t believe that their children are mature enough to go to school until they are seven, by which time home and community have given every child a broadly-based yet emotionally rich start to life. Finnish schools are an integral part of their communities, built so that most children can walk to school, or go by bike, along paths totally separated from traffic. These are common all-through schools – not large, for few have even as many as seven hundred and fifty pupils – where, children go for the nine years from the age of seven to sixteen. There is no splitting primary from secondary, nor nursery from the provision for adolescents. It all happens in one place.
Finnish teachers are required to have both a three-year honours degree in a specific subject, together with a three-year pedagogic degree in educational theory and practice. They know what they are doing and why, and are respected figures within the community, so much so that government delegates to the individual school the design of its own curriculum, and leaves individual teachers to decide on appropriate teaching styles. Finnish teachers have such professionalism that they don’t have to waste time endlessly reporting to people above them. It has been well-said that the more you can trust people, the thinner the rulebook; by that measurement it is easy to understand why the English rulebook is so thick.
With a varied and stimulating life outside school, Finnish classrooms are strictly functional places concentrating on developing rigorous and thoughtful young minds. There are no external assessments until a single exam at the age of sixteen which is used to help decide with parents, child and teacher what form of further education is most appropriate. Only 3% of students drop out at the age of sixteen and two years later between 60% and 70% of them go on to higher education. If anything goes wrong with children’s lives the first question asked is “what’s gone wrong in the community?”, not what might have gone wrong in the school. Education is a social concern, not a political issue.
It could have been like that in England for Milton said something as profound as ever did Comenius. “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, all the offices both public and private, of peace and war”. That is the idea that England never took up.
As the English question what schools they need now they have first to ask themselves what they think they are educating children for; a sectional, special interest perspective will not do – England has had enough of that in the past. The question is what the nation believes it is education all its children for. Milton’s words, much influenced by Comenius, remain incredibly powerful. An education that was complete and generous (no half measures here), that fits (like a tailor making a bespoke suit), so as to perform (not just talk) justly (so requiring a fine appreciation of ethics), skilfully (Milton’s definition of skills included the practical as well as the theoretical), andmagnanimously (with a big heart and empathy with others), and not only in his private affairs but publicly when things are going well as well as badly.
This England could still have. The rounded person, the adaptable, free-range person, not the efficient and single-purpose battery hen. The person who can think for himself or herself however complex the situation. This was not just about the creation of good people, it was about the creation of civil society, that place where so many of us would like to be, where people are sufficiently educated, thoughtful and responsible that the need for government intervention and prescription are reduced to an absolute minimum.
Do we want that enough to unscramble the present muddle?