Announced today, the latest educational silliness of the UK government is that children are going to be required to learn their times tables and division by the age of nine. Specifications will be laid down by “an expert panel” (somewhere deep in Whitehall no doubt). There’s no hope of achieving this anymore than previous governmental targets for literacy and numeracy. Both skills seem to be highly desirable, of course, particularly from the point of view of educationalist bureaucrats looking down condescendingly at the masses, or politicians wanting to encourage an economic upsurge.
In fact, illiteracy and innumeracy have been growing in the last few decades. In both activities we are almost certainly worse than in late Victorian times. For an increasing proportion of our children, gone are the days when young chambermaids would read the next exciting Charles Dickens instalment by candlelight in their attic bedrooms or when boys would read comics with thousands of words of text. (As a boy, I used to read the latest Rover or Adventure when riding my bike from the newsagent’s shop. This habit terminated when I went over the handlebars and broke my collar-bone.) An increasing proportion of children, particularly boys, never read a book in their leisure time from one year to the next.
Governmental educationalists and politicians have got the causation upside down. They think that higher general educational standards (which are never achieved, of course) and a ‘liberal’ repertoire of subjects will somehow translate into lots of exports and economic prosperity all round (and, of course, higher workers’ wages and thus more taxation for yet more perks for politicians, larger governmental departments and adequate welfare for the aged). On the contrary, it’s the particular form of the economy, and its closely associated parental culture, that produce the motivation for better education. It is the particular repertoire of subjects chosen by parents for their children that determines the flavour of the culture and its economic potential.
In the great manufacturing cities of the early 19th century it was the factory workers, not the government, that started a new wave of fee-paid schools for their children, and to build mechanics institutes for their young people and. later in the century, municipal universities for young people who spoke, dressed and behaved a little differently from those of the upper middle-classes who went into the older, generally anti-scientific, universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. It was only late in the century, after several other unsuccessful efforts, that the government finally managed to wrest childrens’ education away from parental choice by bribery (making education free) so that minds could be conditioned to nationalistic requirements (obedient domestic servants and factory workers, cannon fodder for its armies). Many government-trained and -indoctrinated teachers would hang red-coloured maps of the British Empire in their classrooms, and their children awed with great tales of military success all round the world.
Yes, of course, a successful economy requires high educational standards. The best thing the government could do would be to start to unwind the previous lamentable history of state education. Give education vouchers to all parents and allow new parentally-organized schools to start (and to compete with state schools). At first, and for a generation or two no doubt, many parents would choose unwisely, or even not at all, but there’s already a sizeable band of parents who desire more than anything else the sort of education that only monopoly-fees-priced private schools can offer. It is this 7% of schools that actually supply about half of all the fully-educated engineers and research scientists (the remainder coming from no more than a handful of state secondary schools in the leafy suburbs).
At the present time no more than about a score of our 650 politicians in the House of Commons have had a scientific or engineering education. At my last check some years ago not a single one of the chief civil servants of 14 departments had been scientifically trained. No country could ever hope to remain at the economic forefront (as England once was) with such a lamentable situation.
Fortunately, despite the latest silliness, the present government (as with many advanced country governments) and against the fierce opposition of teachers’ unions are beginning to experiment with more parental choice private schooling. These experiments should be extended as rapidly as possible. Otherwise leave the state education system to its own devices — repeated lowering of examination standards and the production of state-school teachers of which a quarter can’t write grammatical sentences and half can’t do simple mathematics.