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August 26, 2004

Too Much Schooling?

Posted by Digby Anderson

As GCSE and A level results come out there is the annual debate about whether or not children are doing better than ever before or whether exams have become easier. Digby Anderson, however, asks a much more radical question. Many young people, by the time they leave full-time education, will have spent 4000 days or 25,000 hours in schooling. May some of these hours, Digby Anderson asks, not more profitably be spent in doing actual paid-for work? Digby Anderson suggests the real question is not whether our schools are delivering but whether there is rather too much schooling.

'Listen, listen to me', say Mr Blair's ministers, 'We have an idea. It's quite new. It's radical, unconventional, modern'. They pride themselves so much on being new and innovative. But so often those who imagine themselves innovators are running in tramlines set long ago. Thus it is with this Government.

Nowhere is this more so than in its chosen matter of priority, education, or, rather, schooling. More than a century ago the tramlines were set: the more people there are at school, the better; and the more years they spend there, the better. This is especially true of children and young people; why, their proper place is in school. This conventional assumption has nothing to do with actual learning. It's just the right place for them to be. Once, they went in there at 5 and came out at fourteen. Nine years they stayed there; not enough. So the school-leaving age was raised to 15 and then in the sixties to 16. A while after this in the late seventies it was noticed that after 11 years in their proper place, 40 per cent of school children had no usable batch of skills, qualification or learning. Many were illiterate and innumerate.

Did anyone give a sceptical glance at the institution that had demanded so much of these children's time and so much public money? No. In government, nothing succeeds like failure. The problem was that the children and young people had not spent enough time in the institution. They were encouraged, cajoled and now, under Blair bribed to stay on. Not only to stay on but to go to university, or at least institutions which were renamed universities. While some politicians were trying to extend educational attendance at the 'university' end, others were tugging away at the nursery and kindergarten end. The ideal is now clear: children should enter the institution at three and leave at 21, in fact 22 allowing for the very necessary Australian-Thai holiday gap year. What was 9 years is now, for many, 19 years.

The precise numbers need to be spelt out. This institution, schooling, is now allowed and funded to monopolize young people's time for more than 4,000 days or 25,000 hours. Yet it takes a commercial organization only a dozen or so hours to teach someone to drive a car and a commercial language school will get you proficient in a foreign language in several weeks. The state's Little Pied Piper children leave after tens of thousands of hours in state schooling institutions inarticulate in their own language.

Set aside for the moment the arguments about just how little they learn in all those hours, weeks and years. What is never challenged is the assumption that school, or schools called universities, are the right places for children and youth. The assumption is that they should be there and nowhere else. The assumption is revealed in all its thoughtlessness in the literature of the anti-child labour lobby. Where should children not be? At work, of course. And why not? 'Why not, do you really want to push toddlers up chimneys again or have them rooting on rubbish tips or selling their bodies as they do in South America?' No, but then I don't want adults forced up chimneys either. Nor do I want them on rubbish tips or selling their bodies. That is nothing to do with children. It is about work no-one should have to do.

Once this nonsense is put aside, why should children not be at work? Because they will be exploited? Surely their parents would not let them be and nor would a regulatory government. So why not? It comes down to this. Children should not be at work because - wait for it - their proper place is at school. Where school is concerned all the worries of the anti-child labour lobby are thrown aside. They who are so worried about employers coercing and exploiting children don't care that schools have much more power to coerce and exploit children. They don't care that the schooling institutions can keep their charges working for no wage, in many cases, without any demonstrable educational benefit for years on end.

It doesn't require much imagination to think of jobs in comfy air conditioned offices - not rubbish tips - or in the fresh air and under adult supervision that teenagers could be allowed to do. But the politicians have no imagination. The schooling wheeze has been allowed to grow and grow with no evidence of success. It is time to cut it back. It is not justifying its awful custodial powers educationally and it should not be there merely to do state childminding. I am not sure at what age what is more or less compulsory schooling should cease, perhaps 11. However what there can be no doubt about is that the uncritical attitude to schooling institutions which regards them as the natural place for young people to be for 19 years should cease immediately.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year.


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Excellent article, equally valid for the current situation in the U.S. I would add, however, that at the upper end the lengthening of school years has as much to do with the students themselves than with meddling bureaucrats.

In the past several years I have known many students graduating from college entering graduate school for the simple reason that they either don't want to or cannot find a job that pays them big bucks right off the bat. Short one- and two-year programs are increasingly popular as a way for youth to duck the job market with the added benefit of increased future "marketability" due to an "advanced" degree. Instead of providing students with the skills to be successful citizens and workers, school is increasingly a way for young people to escape from such bourgeoisie notions as a steady job.

Posted by: Misspent Life at August 26, 2004 04:15 PM
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It may be that few native-born British parents believe that they are answerably to God for the education of their children. This belief is not yet uncommon in the United States, and is probably one of the chief reasons that so many children, perhaps more than a million, are educated by their own parents (“home schooling”). National magazines and newspapers have -- perhaps sometimes against the politically liberal inclinations of the journalists, since home schooling is largely a conservative and Christian activity -- reported on the academic successes of these children. Once educrats had to concede that home-educated children often gain reading, computational, and writing skills superior to conventionally educated children, they attacked home schooling because, they said, the children would lack “social skills.” Perhaps 12 years of 180 or so school days should foster more than social skills; but in any event, the home-educated children often are more tolerant, less violent, etc. than young people who have had the “benefit” of 12 or more years in state schools.

People agreeing with Digby Anderson’s article should consider the possibility that the national schools simply cannot be saved; it’s time to campaign for laws that would permit an exodus of children from the darkness of the state system “Egypt.”

Posted by: Extollager at September 1, 2004 12:46 AM
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There is a lot I can agree with in what you say: personally I have always been of the opinion that university is wasted on the young. I rather suspect that young people are kept in school to protect the adult job market. Perhaps we can look forword to hoards of teenage plumbers willing to work for minimum wages.
The whole 'teenage' era of development is comparatively modern before the advent of the education machine one was a child then one 'came of age' and was adult. There was no in between stage.

Posted by: Les at September 13, 2004 07:24 PM
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Well, cutting off education at 11 is perfectly fine, so long as you abandon democracy as a system of government to be aimed for. Democracy demands an educated citizenry, else it becomes little more than mob rule, manipulated by skilled demogogues and the powerful. Indeed, for markets to work effectively you need an educated consumer body. Hell, even if I believed in Ayn Rand I would still have to argue that education needed to be comprehensive to give each child (and resulting adult) the opportunity to realise (in both senses of the word) their full value, and could therefore negotiate an effective price for their labours.

Posted by: Andrew Bartlett at September 23, 2004 11:04 AM
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