THERE is a short story by the American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov called The Fun They Had, in which two mid 21st century children find a book describing how children used to be brought together to a central place, called a school, to be taught by human teachers. This is in contrast to the computerised isolation of their own studies. The moral of the story is not difficult to work out: the importance of education is much less about the acquisition of knowledge than the process of learning and working together.
This is precisely what British (or at least English) children of the future will not be able to do, if the proposals for education south of the border become reality. At a time when the world is quite literally being torn apart by religious, political and racial differences, Tony Blair and his new Education Secretary are apparently pinning their hopes on segregation; the specific proposals are for a system where, by 2005, some 40 per cent of secondary schools will become specialists with the right to select a large percentage of their pupils, and faith schools will be allowed to multiply according to demand.
In London, Ken Livingstone’s race adviser has called for schools for black children staffed solely by black teachers. One can understand why but, despite the mayor’s opposition to racial segregation, it is a demand ministers may find difficult to refuse if their own flawed logic is to be applied consistently.
At a time when it is more important than ever to bring people together in an effort to recognise cultural diversity and celebrate cultural commonality, our elected representatives talk about social inclusion while legislating for institutionalised exclusion.
Not that we in Scotland have any reason to be smug. Despite a proud record of successful comprehensive education against the odds of massive underfunding, we continue to transport some children past their local school to one catering specifically for those whose religion of choice is Catholicism, and helping to cultivate the sectarianism which has been the backdrop for many generations growing up in the west of Scotland in particular.
At the same time, the outdated guidelines which dictate that all secondary pupils should take part in religious observance at least once a month provide a source of embarrassment. Irrelevant even in 1991 when introduced by a Secretary of State with little grasp of the reality of life for the majority of Scots, they are at best misleading, at worst harmful and often quietly ignored.
While moral and religious education, especially the study of world religions, has never been more important, religious observance is something that should probably be engaged in privately, or with consenting others.
It is their plans for the funding of education however, which should give us the greatest insight into ministers’ thinking, and possibly the greatest cause for concern. Having inherited a state system dying of starvation through generations of neglect, they have chosen to address the problem by allowing free market forces to dictate, placing the burden of raising money firmly where it does not belong, on authorities and on schools themselves. Last year, the headteacher of one inner London school, hailed as a paragon of the new public private partnerships, managed to secure far more than the school’s normal share of funding.
Initiatives including Excellence in Cities, Gifted and Talented, Pupil Learning Credits, National Opportunities Fund, a single regeneration budget called Get Set for Citizenship and investment bank UBS Warburg all contributed to the school’s budget.
But at what expense? One would have to assume that in the course of demonstrating such entrepreneurial dexterity, the head has had little time to devote to issues concerning learning and teaching, or to the management of the curriculum. And what happens to the educational provision when next session the head is less successful?
This scramble for an inordinate share of inadequate funds is of course the price we all pay for refusing to face the facts – to provide quality education for all our young people we have to be prepared to pay more, according to our means, and we need a government that is prepared to make us face up to that fact, not one which creates the illusion of choice while running away from its responsibilities.
This article was first published in TES on 4 January 2002.