Everyone’s Children

Some years ago I wrote a short Paper on the relationship of education to democracy.  It read: “To send your child to the local school, or decide to go private, is a question that splits families apart.  It raises a fundamental question – is education primarily for private gain, or for the public good.  Although we rarely see it in these terms, isn’t this actually a question about our faith in democracy?”

“I’ve never thought of it like that,” said a experienced journalist some weeks ago.  “As far as I’m concerned I just want what is best for my child.”  Which sounds so very obviously right, could anybody ever challenge it?  But there is a problem; within any closed society what may be best for one may create a problem for the others.

When I compared my life experience with that of the journalist I realised how different it had been.  I grew up in post-war Britain as it struggled to clear the bomb sites and build a welfare state.  The message of my schooling was that the more privileged you were, the greater the obligation on me to assist the less well off.  Of my closest friends at school two became scientists, one a doctor but most became teachers.  The journalist, being 25 years younger than me, had been born into a world which was already pretty comfortable, but where fewer more able Sixth Formers thought of becoming teachers.
Teaching geography in the early 1960s taught me as much about the world as it taught me about youngsters and so, within seven years, I moved from the intellectually challenging, but comfortable, post of teacher at a grammar school to the administrative and philosophically challenging post of headmaster of a comprehensive school.  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s both Labour and Conservatives supported comprehensive education.  In the spirit of the time my generation (and that meant many of the parents of pupils in the school) had a great faith in democracy for, after all, had not the war been fought about the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism?.  We also had a deep faith in what is called social capital – those nebulous and largely invisible sets of relationships that hold families and communities together.

To people of my way of thinking education, social capital and democracy are all part of the same piece.  It is why we thought that to send any child of ours to a ‘socially segregated’ independent school weakened the kind of society we thought it was our responsibility to build.  Democracy can’t flourish unless each new generation is well-nurtured in the affairs of the mind, and appropriately inducted into the responsibilities of adulthood and the maintenance of the common good.  To me important as school was, it was only one of the key three components of a child’s life – home, community and life in school.

Important as is the education of our own children, so inevitably has to be the education of everyone else’s children.  As John Donne expressed it so eloquently in the 17th century: “No man is an island, entire of itself.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  It is why that great democrat John Milton 20 years later wrote “I call 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.”

Until the English believe that in their public life as well as their private affairs, democracy really does matter, and matters for every man-Jack, they will never understand why every child matters.  Woe to British democracy if we continue to ignore such an ages-old reality.

See Action Ten of the Briefing Paper and
Chapters 8 and 9 of Overschooled but Undereducated