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December 08, 2006

Education, Education, Education - Ten Years On: Marc Sidwell argues that Tony Blair has failed to turn around British education because he has no vision of what education is

Posted by Marc Sidwell

Tony Blair pronounced ten years ago that his priority was "education, education, education". But what he has offered in government, argues Marc Sidwell, are endless administrative initiatives and reorganisations. Blair has used up much of his political capital championing the reorganisation of how schooling is provided. But he has not offered a vision of what education itself should be for. For there to be any truly effective education reform, argues Marc Sidwell, the great traditions of liberal education must first be reclaimed.

Two schools rioted in my neighbourhood last week. The police turned out in force - as you might when five hundred representatives of Britain's golden future are brawling on the green. They found the fifth-formers had even thought to bring their own CS gas.

In other news, Tony Blair marked the tenth anniversary of "Education, Education, Education", with his last major policy speech on schooling. He's very proud of how far we have come together.

As the gap between political self-congratulation and daily experience continues to yawn, it's easy to forget that it doesn't have to be this way. Recent attempts by government to force more state-educated pupils into university places are just one more ineffective response to a problem of our own creation. Between 1946 and 1967, following the 1944 Education Act and the revitalisation of the grammars, the proportion of female students at Oxford who were educated privately fell from 57% to 39%. Today, state schools struggle to account for 50% of Oxbridge places, despite accounting for more than 90% of school leavers. In 1958, a bright girl born into a low-income household had a four in ten chance of getting a university degree. By 1970, that had fallen to three in ten.

Progressives should stop shouting about every step they take up the slope they sledded us down, while Conservatives must keep calmly but firmly pointing out that there is a perfectly serviceable ski lift that still runs all the way to the top. That's not to call for a return to grammar schools as they were, but for the ancient, tested vision of education they stood for.

The tragedy of the grammars was not the loss of a particular model of school administration: no doubt the old system had many flaws. The great casualty was a vision of liberal education that included all levels of society. Liberal education, the great secret of the West: formulated in fifth-century Athens, revived under Rome's Republic, preserved by the Church and rediscovered by the Renaissance humanists. The liberal education that produced Socrates, Pericles, Cicero, and St Augustine, or St Thomas More, Shakespeare and Coleridge, or David Cameron and Tony Blair via Eton and Fettes. It was the education of all those current MPs who benefited from a grammar school education. It is no longer state-sector policy.

Looking at Tony Blair's speech, it is not that his ideas are all bad. More independence for schools, higher expectations, better management: who can argue with these? Yet his ideas are two parts sense to four parts gibberish: personalised learning, vocationalism, cookery and self-esteem. What is missing is any deeply thought theory of education, self-consistent and practically robust. Instead we have the piecemeal accretion of fads and soundbites; not strategic direction but a policy of endless tinkering.

As David Willetts has just acknowledged, in a welcome policy move from the Tory front bench, the debate has become stuck in the minutiae of administration at the expense of education itself, as if loutish, ignorant youths could be transformed if only their heads used the latest senior management models from the carpet industry.

The truth is that we have forgotten what to teach. The Times reported Mr Blair's speech as advocating the 3 C's - cooking, communicating and culture. For two and a half thousand years, the three Cs of liberal education have remained the essential teaching of the West: a didactic Curriculum of necessary facts and the arts of language and number; a Canon of the timeless achievements of mankind and the West in particular; and an attempt to establish the self-mastery and personal discretion that we apostrophise as Character.

We have forgotten what schools are for. That amnesia continues to fail generations of Britons: the five million adults who are illiterate; the fifteen million who could not get grade G in GCSE mathematics. Yet with liberal education it is never too late. Cicero had to revive the lessons of the Greeks for his own civilisation, at one point hacking through brambles to reveal the tomb of Archimedes. The same happened in the twelfth century, in Renaissance Italy, in twentieth-century America - liberal education is always waiting to be rediscovered, and to prove itself by its results.

Yet in Britain, no one has been paying attention to the old way, the only education that works. The Conservatives may no longer have grammar schools in mind, but when David Willetts speaks of turning the debate from how schools are organised to what it is they teach, I hope he means it. This country has a great tradition of liberal education, stretching back at least to King Alfred the Great, teaching his subjects to read and translating Boethius even as he fought against barbarian incursions in the ninth century. That torch needs to be raised once more.

Deafened by "Education, Education, Education," we forgot to ask if Tony knew what the word meant. For the last ten years we have been fobbed off with administrators, architects, anyone but liberal educators. We can change that any time we choose. Since we haven't, the cracks are starting to show.

Marc Sidwell is a freelance writer and a member of the organising committee for the Henry Jackson Society, as well as co-founder of the Champagne Charlies discussion group. He is currently working on an anthology of British writing in defence of liberal education.

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