Have traditional schools had their day? Will the computer replace the classroom? And who will pay? n
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OF THE many things that parents might fear about life in the next century, the state of education is perhaps the most worrying. We already read horror stories about decaying classrooms and savage cutbacks and teachers' declining morale. We may already be frustrated at the lack of choice about where our children can go to school. If things are this bad now, what hope is there for the future?

Not much, if you're feeling gloomy about current trends. According to Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Manchester, the school population will continue to rise until the year 2020. It is then set to decline (to around 17.6 million under-16s in the UK in 2051, compared with around 20.6 million today); which suggests that physical overcrowding should eventually become less of a problem. But that doesn't mean that there will be more resources to go round. On the contrary: the number of teachers seems set to decline at least as fast as the population of pupils. Increasing demand for health care for the elderly makes it unlikely that education spending will ever increase as a proportion of overall government spending; as a result, teacher-pupil ratios have little chance of improving. It is also unlikely that future governments will agree to fund new schools where they are actually wanted. So middle-class parents will continue in their unseemly scrambles to get their children into popular schools, while unpopular schools will face a downward spiral in pupil numbers and funding.

You can already see how this works in practice. In my neighbourhood in north London, for example, there was near uproar last summer when it became clear that there were not enough places at the two highly-regarded local infant schools for the rapidly expanding number of children in the catchment area. In the year 2000 these children will be approaching secondary school; you can already feel their parents' anxiety about having to face the same problems all over again. There seems little chance that the local authority will build a new secondary school, so what will become of the overspill of pupils? A few will be privately educated; the rest will have to travel outside the neighbourhood, while their parents lament the mess that has engulfed the education system. Unless, that is, there is some radical change of the sort envisaged by John Adcock, a former teacher and founder of the New Education Press. In his recent book, In Place of Schools, he suggests a calm and happy 21st century in which children are taught at home by parents and personal tutors, using a vast range of electronic media. The collapse of traditional schools, in his vision of the future, comes about in 1999: "The trigger was the belated discovery that there was no money to pay a promised health and safety allowance to teachers working in dangerous localities. At the same time, a proposed scheme to patrol some schools on a 24-hour basis to curb violence and vandalism was postponed..."

The Adcock alternative does not simply rely on sophisticated new technology: the lucky 21st century children that he describes are encouraged to read (indeed, their education is centred on the humanising qualities of literature); they are also taken to art galleries and museums; and to sports centres and concert halls. It is, in many ways, an attractive proposition. According to Roland Meighan, Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, Adcock's tale has "considerable plausibility. He has some awareness of the trail blazed by the brave, non-conformist, pioneering families who opt for home-based education and find, often to their surprise, that it is highly successful."

Meighan believes that "there is a kind of inevitability that we will go in that direction." The trouble is, not all parents are brave, non- conformist and pioneering. I cannot be the only mother who heaves a sigh of relief when the school holidays end; nor the only one who partly relies on school as a place that takes care of my child, while I get on with other things. No doubt some parents would be committed and patient teachers; others (including me) would be too irritable and harassed to concentrate.

In fact, now that my five-year-old son is at infant school, I have developed the greatest respect for his teacher. She has taught him the basics of reading and writing - a task at which I had already manifestly failed. And though I have misgivings about the prospect of his secondary education, I am more than happy with his primary school. According to Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, his surveys show that most parents feel the same way as I do. "If you interview parents, and ask them about their child's school and teacher, the overwhelming majority say they are pleased with them. Yet in opinion polls, people tend to say that standards are falling. They are happy with their child's own school, but have the impression that things are bad elsewhere. The myth is more stark than the reality."

He does, however, acknowledge that there are problems which may worsen in the future, unless changes are made now. "Education has been dehumanised in the past few years, as teachers have become more alienated," he says. "And if teachers are not engaged, they won't teach." What would he do to improve education in the 21st century? "I would invest in human capital of all kinds."

Professor Wragg does not ignore the benefits of computers, but he also points out that "The majority of parents do not want their children to learn by sitting at a screen all day long. Most normal adult behaviour is interactive - and you get some very strange people if they've been up in the attic staring at a computer from the age of five to 16."