In another essay I questioned whether the personal health of the individuals who make up the population of the United Kingdom actually obtained sufficient benefit from the National Health Service (NHS) to offset the damage it inflicted upon their financial health and personal liberty by the exorbitant taxation required to support a political overhead which merely distracts doctors, nurses, and carers from providing the help and comfort that sick or injured individuals need in order to heal themselves.
I now turn to education, another feature of national life which is severely handicapped and made ruinously expensive through being continuously fought over by politicians.
The introduction to an article on the history of education in Microsoft(r) Encarta(r) Reference Library 2002 contains the following:
"Education denotes the methods [both formal and informal] by which a society hands down from one generation to the next its knowledge, culture, and values. The individual being educated develops physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, and socially. The work of education may be accomplished by an individual teacher, the family, a church, or any other group in society. Formal education is usually carried out by a school, an agency that employs men and women who are professionally trained for this task."
The words in square brackets in the above quotation are significant. I emphasise them because, looking back over my own earthly life of seventy years, I realise that informal education has contributed infinitely more to my personal knowledge, culture, and values than I learned in eleven years (most of them compulsory) at school and a further five years at University. This is not to say that school was actually "bad" for me. Though I didn't enjoy quite a lot of it, I was extremely fortunate in having some good and inspiring teachers, five or six of whom I remember with gratitude. But even in my earliest years, my fundamental understanding of, and attitude to, life was formed at home with my family in a tiny rural hamlet whose very survival in a subsistence economy demanded close co-operation between individuals. I learned to speak my mother tongue (Scottish Gaelic) at mother's knee and in the company of neighbours who took a friendly interest in my development. I learned a smattering of English through playing with the children of parents who liked to spend their holidays by returning "home" from the towns and cities in which they earned a monetary living. I learned some fundamental truths about the life-cycles of vegetation and about husbandry of the live stock which fed upon it and which in turn helped to feed me. I learned about small co-operative business in the form of the local fishing industry comprising small boats with crews of three to five men, each of whom contributed to the capital costs and upkeep of the enterprise and received a proportionate share of the, often meagre, proceeds, in the form of money. Although we had very little money, we were rich in freedom and the ability to feed and clothe ourselves.
Through family worship and church attendance, I picked up the rudiments of music and became dimly aware that there might be more to the Universe than could be discerned by the physical senses.
So before I was compelled to go to school at the age of six (the two-and-a-half mile walk each way being considered too far for a lad of five), I already knew more about the facts of life than the great majority of present-day townie school-leavers. At the "wee" school I attended until I was thirteen, I was taught very thoroughly to speak better English, to read and write with a fair degree of fluency and, in those days of sterling currency and traditional British weights and measures, to do more complex arithmetic than is now required in relatively simple decimal systems. All this occurred in a two-teacher school with, at most, 60 pupils. HM Inspector called every few years and, because religious instruction was also part of the curriculum, so did the local minister, to satisfy themselves that the teachers were performing their tasks with due diligence. During all this time, there was only one formal examination known as the "Qualifying" which was used to determine whether or not a child was "bright" enough to take up one of the two or three options available for "secondary" education. This, of course, meant leaving home at about thirteen to live as a boarder in hostel accommodation near the "big" school or, having passed an additional examination, in an actual boarding school.
Having already been thoroughly versed in reading, writing and arithmetic, secondary education provided an expanded range of subjects, including literature, science, mathematics, history, geography, a selection of languages, and, possibly, some tuition in the aesthetic arts, including music. End-of-term tests and examinations were a regular feature of secondary schools, but were used mainly to report progress to remote parents, not to meet the arbitrary demands of remote government departments. There was only one set of examinations which really mattered: the "Higher" and "Lower" School-leaving Certificate examinations, results in which determined whether or not the pupil was ready to be admitted to a University, or whether a career in some less academic occupation might be more beneficial in the long run.
In my own case, I followed the path of least resistance through boarding school and University, from which I emerged at twenty-two with a degree in "Pure Science", a Diploma in Education, and a Certificate of Competence to teach maths and science in Scottish secondary schools.
Being required to do some form of National Service after completion of my formal education, I was fortunate enough to enter the Royal Navy on a short-service commission. Much to my surprise, I found life in the Navy so enjoyable that I continued to serve for over twenty-five years. After seven years in education and training roles, I was given a course in meteorology and employed as a weather forecaster both ashore and afloat. Subsequent employment included two appointments as a staff officer culminating in four years as leader of a Management Services team. On leaving the Navy, I paddled my own canoe as a freelance consultant specialising in the administrative applications of computers. Although my formal education made me "acceptable" as a Naval officer, my informal education both before and after school has been the principal influence on the formation of the views expressed in this and other essays published here.
Some of my contemporaries in the "wee" school in Applecross took a similar academic route into various professions and occupations in which they achieved various degrees of distinction. But the majority, whose formal education terminated at the earliest permissible age (raised from 14 to 15 in 1947, and to 16 in 1972), were by no means thereby condemned to a life of penury and drudgery. Most of them have done very well in various trades and businesses through which they have made valuable contributions to community life, and some have greatly outperformed their more academic contemporaries in the acquisition of conventional wealth.
I have given a rather lengthy account of my personal experience because it provides a starting point for a fundamental critique of present-day formal education in England as portrayed in the media. It is currently compulsory for children to attend school between the ages of 5 and 16. Parents are encouraged to send their infants to "Nursery" schools when they are only two or three, and many mothers farm out their children to these or other child-care establishments so that they can "go out to work" to earn money which, as often as not, is swallowed up almost entirely by the cost of child-minding.
Once children enter the compulsory phase, they are subjected to formal Standard Assessment Tests (SATS) at seven, eleven, and fourteen. The results of these tests are used to place schools in some sort of "pecking order" and to provide statistics for politicians and other dogmatists to argue about. The effect on education is catastrophic. The lives of children are blighted. Teachers, constrained by the need to concentrate on the next lot of tests and on test-supervision, administration, and reporting not only to parents but also to various tiers of bureaucracy are distracted from teaching children. When you meet young people in the street, far too many of them can barely speak English, let alone read or write well enough to further their own education as they get older.
It has for some years been a political "target" that fifty per cent of all scholars should go on to "tertiary" education and obtain "degrees". The number of "universities" has been artificially inflated by granting university status to former technical colleges and colleges of "higher education", thereby diluting the quality and range of teaching and trivialising the status of many "university" degrees. The prospective employer no longer asks "Do you have a degree?" but rather "Where did you get your degree?". Some excellent technical colleges have become second-rate universities and some second-rate establishments of so-called "higher" education have become universities for which "third-rate" would be a compliment. All this political engineering has raised the cost of formal education to astronomical levels to pay huge armies of teachers of very mixed ability and dedication, and to construct and maintain buildings which, by themselves, make no contribution at all to the education of the young person.
One regrettable result of this feverish political activity has been to concentrate attention on formal education. Nearly everybody overlooks the fact that the role of formal education is chiefly to support and enhance the value of the informal education that goes on throughout the life of every individual whether politicians like it or not.
We learn one from another. The foundation for all education is instilled with mother's milk and strengthened at mother's knee. Hundreds of generations of British mothers have made their successive contributions to British culture and character. Story, song, and participation in domestic routine develop familial bonds and an instinctive sense of mutual trust and inter-dependence. These qualities cannot easily be instilled in the necessarily formal environment of a school constrained by an imposed curriculum, and where competition between peers all too often takes precedence over the encouragement of individual progress. I am convinced that many of the most intractable social problems we experience today arise because financial pressures, aggravated by crippling taxation, too often force the mother out of the home, and children are deprived of natural nurture.
The British Isles have been predominantly Christian for a millennium and a half. The sanctity of the home and family has been a principal good of Western culture. Family worship morning and evening was a feature of my youth in the Scottish Highlands. The "Holy Family" provided a model and inspiration at Christmas time. Now that most Westerners no longer believe in the unique Divinity of the Baby Jesus, the "Holy Family" has lost much of its iconic power, and Christmas has degenerated into a retailing con trick no different from a sentimental "Mothers' Day". But this need be no obstacle to the re-development of a religion based not on the Divinity of Jesus but on the Divinity of every human being through the common Fatherhood of the Eternal Principle of the Universe commonly known as "God". Once this eternal fact has been accepted as truth, we are all seen to be members of the same great family, and the principle of "Do as you would be done by" can once again provide a sound basis for the upbringing of children and the re-definition of a simple system of liberal laws within which politicians can contrive to serve the people instead of bullying them.
If the home can be restored as the recognised best means of rearing children, we can progressively get rid of the worst features of the schools where our young people are compulsorily incarcerated for too many hours a day for too many years whilst being indoctrinated with the shibboleths of political correctness. Once children have learned to speak, read, and write the national language and have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic, they possess the essential tools which will enable them to progress their own education through life with the aid of the media which technology has made cheaply accessible throughout the world. They can learn about friendly competition and develop a sense of fairness in playing with their neighbours on school and community playing fields, the importance of whose rôle in child education, formal and informal, should be recognised as a matter of urgency. When young people voluntarily and enthusiastically participate in their own learning, we can then talk meaningfully of "child-centred" education, and our children will leave the nest as young citizens already imbued with a strong sense of personal responsibility for their own lives and the welfare of their neighbours.
If children expected to set out on the career ladder at fourteen and start paying their own way, there would be no need for a dictatorial government to demand "top-up fees" to support institutions of higher learning, most of which are educationally redundant. There is no reason why every University should not be an "Open" University, willing and able to make whatever educational contributions its customers might require as their careers and interests developed and they desired to study some subject in greater depth at their own expense. Society would be all the healthier if individuals were respected for their practical contributions rather than for their academic qualifications (which I have seen not inappropriately spelt "qualifictions").
Formal examinations were originally introduced in schools to assess the fitness of pupils to embark on courses in universities and other institutions of higher learning. Thereafter, they were the means by which such establishments were able to certify the fitness of individuals to practise in a limited range of professional disciplines, such as medicine, dentistry, law, and so on. Since then, examinations and formal tests have proliferated in schools for no better reason than to provide government bureaucrats with fodder for their bogus statistics.
Whilst many occupations such as engineering entail the acquisition of specialist skills, they can as often as not be acquired through apprenticeships combining theory with practice. Most other skills are in any case picked up "on the job" which could in most cases be commenced at whatever the "school-leaving age" may be. Thus non-academic adolescents could start earning a living and making a contribution to family income while their academic contemporaries are being maintained at great expense without any guarantee of their making an adequate return on the investment in later years.
There is no reason I can think of why every school-leaver should not get a "job" and start earning a living as soon as the law permits. If, when the individual has learned something about the realities of life outside school and wishes to take up a career in which he or she has a particular interest and aptitude, the opportunity to do so should remain open until quite late in life. It is, I think, generally agreed that interest and determination to succeed are far better predictors of career success than a bundle of academic certificates.
The potential for rich but economical education has never been greater than it is today. The University of the Third Age (U3A) enriches the lives of thousands of retired people throughout the UK. In my local area, a subscription of only 15 pounds a year gives access to an organisation for mutual education and fellowship in the study of any discipline in which the individual is interested. The virtually unlimited resources of the Internet give cheap and rapid access to information on every subject known to man. There is no reason why home study, augmented by social contact with other students, should not be just as effective as traditional educational establishments, whether or not one requires formal certification by examination.
Conditions are now such that the traditional English love of liberty and resistance to taxation can be given fresh impetus by setting education almost entirely free from regulation by central government. Whilst a period of compulsory schooling may be necessary to ensure that every English citizen is able to speak, read, and write adequate English and has a sufficient grasp of arithmetic to avoid being over-charged for purchases or taxes, this period should not be longer than necessary. In my time in the Navy, I came across many young persons who, despite eleven compulsory years in school, could barely read, write, or do arithmetic, but who could be trained to reach an adequate standard in these subjects during six weeks of concentrated effort.
I therefore propose that children should not be compulsorily snatched from the bosom of the family before they are seven years old, and that those who achieve satisfactory standards in reading, writing, arithmetic, and fact-finding skills should be allowed to opt out of school on their fourteenth birthday. This would provide an incentive for non-academic children to work at acquiring the basic educational skills; and it would relieve schools from having to act as prisons for unruly kids who would rather be at liberty to earn a living doing their own thing.
Apart from standard English and arithmetic tests for those pupils who wished to leave school at fourteen, there would be no formal examinations except those required and set by institutions of higher learning as a condition of admission to their courses. Instead of having to rely on bits of paper of dubious value, prospective employers should be encouraged to devise and apply their own tests of fitness for recruitment into their enterprises. Thus a much-needed culture of enterprise could once again begin to flourish in a nation where it has in recent years been regulated almost out of existence.
As these proposals imply a greatly reduced need for teachers, the dross could be eliminated from the profession; truly competitive salaries could be offered; and job satisfaction could be assured through freedom to teach individual interested children rather than dull, bureaucratised, "classes" of nonentities. There would also be less need for elaborate and expensive buildings.
Finally, by reducing the overall cost of formal education, it should be possible to offer incentives to mothers to stay at home and enjoy the freedom to plan their own time, rear their own children, and help augment the quality of all-important informal education in the local community.