Educating for Growth

Chris Waller February 2010
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During the 1997 General Election campaign, Tony Blair, then prospective prime minister, summed up his party's three policy priorities as, "Education, education, education." As a sales pitch to Middle England's parents it was a masterful piece of political sloganeering, designed to touch the very core of those parents' hopes and aspirations for their children. It all seemed very laudable: how could anyone reasonably argue against such an aim? To argue against education is almost to advocate sending children back down coal-mines.

Putting cynicism aside, the aim was ostensibly liberal and progressive, was it not? But to what extent has the aim been achieved? Indeed, was there any truly clear aim at that time in Westminster and Whitehall in the matter of education? One could further ask whether there has ever been any clear aim to education in Britain. In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain dominated the world both politically and economically. The British Empire at this time accounted for about two-thirds of the entire world's measurable economic activity. However, this was not to last: by the late eighteen-sixties, the United States and Germany were hot on the heels of Britain in terms of economic development. At the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, of the ninety prizes awarded for industrial innovation, Britain took only ten, even fewer than Belgium. To the British government this was an alarm-call, in this, the very birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1868 a Commons Select Committee and a Royal Commission both reported: the conclusions were damning:
"... we are bound to add that our evidence appears to show that our industrial classes have not even the basis of sound general education on which alone technical education can rest... in fact, our deficiency is not merely a deficiency in technical education, but... in general intelligence, and unless we remedy this want we shall gradually but surely find that our undeniable superiority in wealth and perhaps in energy will not save us from decline."(quoted in Barnett, 2001)

The early Industrial Revolution had been founded on the work of such as Hargreaves (spinning jenny), Trevithick (steam power), Stephenson (steam locomotive), Brindley (civil engineering) and Telford (civil engineering). Though all men of undeniable practical ability, they were all illiterate, Trevithick and Stephenson only achieving a measure of literacy in later life. Britain had put its faith in such men, and, in the past, their efforts had delivered to Britain a massive economic advantage, but the times were now changing and a new breed was needed.

Despite much opposition from vested interests, both political and commercial, in 1870, the Liberal MP, William E Forster managed, with some compromises, to get his education bill through Parliament. This made education available to all children from the age of 5 to 12 years of age. Note that the act (the Elementary Education Act 1870) was not universally applied and it was another ten years before attendance up to the age of 12 years was made compulsory. In 1870, industrialists feared that compulsory education would deprive them of cheap child labour - they had wailed and gnashed their teeth in just the same way some decades earlier when Shaftesbury's acts had been introduced to reduce the working hours and improve the working conditions of children and women.

By 1880, even the industrialists had realised that their futures depended on a workforce which could read, write and count, and thus they became doughty advocates of education. It would be nice to think that they approved of education for the social and cultural benefits it might bring but the defeat of the French in 1870 by the technically more proficient Prussians probably sharpened their minds rather more.

By this stage Britain was well behind the field: France had established its Ecole Polytechnique for engineers in 1794; in Germany, technical high schools and institutes had been established in Berlin (1821), Karlsruhe (1825), Dresden (1828) and Stuttgart (1829). By 1851 in Prussia, there were 26 technical trade schools for the training of apprentices and, for adults, there were the Fachschulen.

Despite the advances made in Britain by Michael Faraday, it was the United States and continental Europe which created the first viable electrical engineering industry and this story was to be repeated in the newly rising chemical industry. In the face of competition and all the evidence, the British establishment continued to believe that a ruling class of men schooled in the classics, conversant with the histories of ancient Greece and Rome, able to quote Sophocles, Terence and Ovid in their original Greek and Latin, were the right kind of men to govern an industrial nation. It was Seeley who said that Britain had acquired its empire 'in a fit of absence of mind' but it also seems that while Britain had become an industrial power, its lords and masters were similarly absent-minded, still directing their attentions towards Poona, Simla and Darjeeling, deep in a reverie in which Britannia would continue to rule a quarter of the world for a thousand years hence.

Towards the end of the Second World War, education had once again fallen into the spotlight as the events of that war had, yet again, revealed the failings of our education system. Despite our undoubted technical expertise at the highest levels, as evidenced by our development of radar, radio location for aerial bombardment and, most notably, code breaking at Bletchley Park, the components - thermionic valves, magnetrons etc.- had to be bought from the USA.

As early as 1941, R A Butler, then President of the Board of Education, had appointed a committee to address the question of 'future competition in practical and technical education'. In 1943 the committee reported, its title page complete with a quotation from Plato in the original Greek! The report emphasised the importance of the classics, and especially the study of Divinity. One wonders quite how Divinity might advance out industrial competitiveness - unless we are in so dire a state as to be seeking divine intervention!

For all its merits, Butler's resultant Education Act 1944 missed a golden opportunity to propel Britain truly into the late twentieth century. Speaking as a beneficiary of the 1944 Education Act, I have to say that for those who were of an academic bent, it paid some dividends, but it failed to address the tackle the real causes of Britain's industrial shortcomings. The influence of the academic establishment - the committee's chairman had been one Cyril Norwood, former headmaster of Harrow, while the rest of the committee were of similar pedigree - and its bias against technical and craft education, was manifest.

The first half of the twentieth century brought a rude awakening and by the nineteen-sixties the empire was the stuff of history. Harold Macmillan's 'winds of change' had blown - and they had blown very cold. Nevertheless, the provisions of the Butler Education Act remained until the late nineteen-sixties when Comprehensive Schools were introduced. Once again, the aims seemed motivated variously by political ideology and nebulous notions of social engineering.

A common theme in all this is that Britain has never had any clear idea of the purpose of education. Such education as existed in the early 19th century was confined to the sons of the gentry and was held to fit them for the administration of empire. Indeed, it was felt that seeking to educate the lower orders was unwise and possibly dangerous for the cohesion of the social fabric. Latterly, it was felt that exposing the lower orders to Plato might improve their condition. At no time did anyone seem to think that building better aircraft, railway locomotives and cars might be economically advantageous.

During the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, education became once again a football in the political arena, and various nostrums were applied to improve the output of the nation's schools, though in reality, little changed.

Education is a godsend to politicians: it is something that affects everyone, yet albeit indirectly. What politicians say and do today will not manifest in practical terms for several years, even decades, so they can meddle with relative impunity. Blair had declared his party's aims during the 1997 election campaign and it was this primarily, though not alone, which brought his party to power. During the 13 years of the Labour government, spending on education rose from about 35 billion to about 770 billion. What did the government expect to achieve by all this?

During the last decade and more, there has been a move away from the idea of liberal education, nowhere more clearly expressed than by Charles Clarke MP, the then Education Secretary, when he dismissed the study of medieval history as 'ornamental' and 'a waste of public money'. He further said that education for its own sake was "a bit dodgy". He went on to say that he only wanted the state to pay for subjects of "clear usefulness". (Charles Clarke MP, quoted in the Guardian, Friday, 9th May, 2003, by Will Woodward and Rebecca Smithers.) It seems that Clarke was advocating a return to the schooling of Dickens' Mr Gradgrind. In addition, Clarke's statement could be taken to imply that he regards some types of learning as useless.

During this same period, emphasis was placed on literacy and numeracy, particularly this latter. Information technology and communications were also elevated to the level of subjects in theirr own right. It seems that the ghosts of the Norwood Committee, with their texts and attendant academic dispositions drawn from classical antiquity, had finally been exorcised. One might therefore think that Britain has turned a corner and is now in the home straight, within a whisker of competing in educational and technical terms with Germany and the rest.

Sadly, that is not the case. The recent report from a committee of the OECD, headed by Andreas Schleicher, paints a grim picture.
"(British) Teenagers slumped in worldwide rankings comparing standards of reading, mathematics and science in 65 developed nations. Figures published by the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed the UK fell from 17th to 25th for reading and from 24th to 28th for maths.
In science, pupils dropped from 14th when results were last published in 2007 to 16th this year.
The results will cast a major shadow over Labour's education record and spark claims that a 30 bbillion rise in spending under the last Government failed to produce decent results.
Andreas Schleicher, from the OECD's education directorate, said overall scores achieved by UK pupils were "stagnant at best, whereas many other countries have seen quite significant improvements".
According to OECD figures, around a fifth of 15-year-olds in Britain failed to gain even the minimum standard expected for their age group in literacy and maths."

(Graeme Paton, Education Editor, Telegraph, 7/12/10)

Given the increase in education spending over the preceding 13 years, clearly this is not due to a lack of financial resources, but one has to ask whether these resources have been properly distributed and efficiently managed. Indeed, one has to ask whether they have been directed at the right target.

Over that same period the number of students progressing to higher education has increased enormously. In the nineteen-fifties, only around 4% of students went on to university; now it is around 40 percent. His has been achieved at the expense of free university education, but it is claimed that the students individually and the country collectively will benefit economically from this investment. After all, it stands to reason that a more highly educated workforce will be more productive and more competitive internationally, doesn't it?

At first blush this might sound reasonable but the figures suggest otherwise. Survey after survey concludes that there is no clear and unambiguous link between education and economic growth. For example, in 1960 the literacy rates in Taiwan and the Philippines were 54 and 72 percent respectively. Yet, Taiwan has achieved one of the best economic growth rates on record, while the Philippines has done rather badly. In 1960, Taiwan's per capita GDP was half that of the Philippines; today, it is about ten times that of the Philippines. Similarly in 1960, the literacy rates of South Korea and Argentina were 71 and 91 percent respectively; Korea's per capita GDP was one fifth that of Argentina. Today, South Korea's per capita GDP is three times that of Argentina.

There is no doubt that education, in the sense of qualifications, pays a dividend to the holder of those qualifications. There is also no doubt that qualifications in mathematics pay a dividend, while a lack of numeracy is a serious impediment to one's earning power. If all other conceivable factors are controlled for, then someone with an A-Level in mathematics will earn 10 percent more than someone of similar educational attainment yet not having A-Level maths. Conversely, someone with very low numeracy will earn much less when they go into employment, and it will fall relatively as they age.

Even then, qualifications are not the whole story: someone who went to an independent school will typically earn more in later life than someone who went to a state school. There can be no doubt that Britain is more educated than it was in 1868, when the Select Committee on Scientific Instruction reported to government but by international comparisons we still fail to achieve the standards set by Germany and most of our immediate European neighbours. Between 1868 and 1969, there were no less than 24 commissions looking into education. And that was not the end of it: since then every government has fretted about education and felt the need to intervene. In 1988, a CBI taskforce under the chairmanship of Sir Bryan Nicholson, turned its mind to the problem and in 1989 published a report entitled 'Towards a Skills Revolution'. This chimed in nicely with the recently established NVQ programme which was, at that time, held to be the cure for all Britain's ills in vocational education and training. The inauguration of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications was accompanied by much fanfare and there was great enthusiasm among its supporters, the CBI being the most prominent among them. It was vastly expensive and hugely bureaucratic but despite the billions being spent, within ten years NVQs were fading, as had their predecessors.

Twenty years later, Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, was still lamenting: "standards are still woefully low in too many schools". Leahy's comments prompted a response from Michael Gove, then Shadow Secretary of Education: "When one of Britain's top bosses says education in this country is woeful, we should all sit up and listen." (Reported in the Sunday Times, 18/10/09)

Michael Gove is now Minster of Education, so it will be interesting to see what he proposes. Experience tells me that he, too, will do all the wrong things. Not only that, but his colleague, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has said that education spending will have to be cut by 25 percent, which at least means that Gove will be able to do fewer wrong things. There is precious little evidence to support the idea that government knows what is needed when it comes to educating and training the nation.

One can understand Sir Terry Leahy's concern, as what one might call the ultimate consumer of education, and he is not alone in his criticism: many other voices from the world of commerce are similarly scathing of education and training. But does business really know best? In 'Does Education Matter?', Professor Alison Wolf concludes that, "... the upshot of business... involvement in education policy... was substantial but largely negative."

In the nineteen-sixties, when university education was 'free', there was a clear belief that university graduates were a general benefit to the economy therefore higher education was a national investment. If one accepts the principles of free markets, that is the law of supply, demand and pricing, then one has to conclude that these days we no longer believe that graduates are an unalloyed economic good since, in order to gain a degree, they have to pay for it. The threat of rising tuition fees has brought students out on to the streets in protest - and these are the children of Middle England. Tony Blair expressed his hope that half of all Britain's students would go on to higher education, yet all this has delivered in 'qualification inflation' whereby a job which used to be done in the sixties by someone with a few O-Levels now demands a degree. In effect, students now are being asked to buy their jobs.

There is a certain logic to this: in the nineteen-sixties one could still leave school at 15 years of age and get a job in a factory with no difficulty, but now there are few such jobs due to deindustrialisation and the mechanisation of such industry that remains. But do we really need the number of graduates that we are producing? Wolf's study strongly suggests that, from the point of view of Gross Domestic Product, we would do better to ensure that all students, by the age of 14, have a thorough grasp of the three Rs.

The whole issue of education remains both a political hot potato and a political football (I'm mixing my metaphors here!) and that cannot be good for anyone.

I conclude by quoting Wolf once again:
"But does education matter in the ways in which governments the world over think it does? And are these governments' education policies accordingly well conceived? To those questions the answer must be 'No'. As this book has documented, two nave beliefs have a distorting influence: the belief in a simple, direct relationship between the amount of education in a society and its future growth rate, and the belief that governments can fine-tune education expenditures to maximise that self-same rate of growth. Neither is correct."

Wolf continues:
"Moreover, people really do acquire 'human capital' during education and work, and this makes them, and their societies, more productive, even though education alone is far from able to deliver a prosperous society."

Barnett, Correlli (2001). The Verdict of Peace. (publ. MacMillan)
Chang, Ha-Joon (2010). 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. (publ. Alllen Lane)
Wolf, Alison (2002). Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth. (publ. Penguin Education)

Chris Waller - Permission granted to freely distribute this article for non-commercial purposes if attributed to Chris Waller, unedited and copied in full, including this notice.

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