Wednesday Book: How Britain's schools went wrong

Education And Economic Decline In Britain, 1870 To The 1990s By Michael Sanderson, Cambridge University Press, pounds 7.95
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BETWEEN 1980 and 1997, Britain dropped from 13th to 18th in the world economic league table. Margaret Thatcher and John Major left the country stuck in the bottom third of EU nations, in terms of wealth per capita. This confirmed a seemingly inexorable 20th-century trend. One unspoken challenge for New Labour and Tony Blair's Third Way is whether Britain can start to move up, instead of down, the rankings of world wealth- creation.

The "declinist" debate is not new. It has been going on for more than a century. So has the hunt for something easy or someone obvious to blame. Both left and right think they have found a scapegoat: our schools. The left blame public schools, the 11-plus, and universities reserved for the middle and wealthy classes. The right blame comprehensives, the 1968 generation of teachers, and multiculturalism. What can't be blamed is lack of money. Britain spends as much as other countries on education, but we get far less bang for each buck.

This crisply written book clears away much of the myth but, alas, confirms one central message. Getting education wrong is the surest indicator of future economic decline. And, boy, how our policy-makers have messed up education in the past 150 years.

Admittedly, they have had an impossible job. At no stage has there been a sufficient sense of urgency to overcome the vested interests that control British education. The 19th century was awash with reports lamenting that levels of numeracy and literacy were falling behind those of our competitors. Yet, under pressure of war, British scientists and technologists could outperform anyone. They produced a chemical industry revolution after 1914 and similar marvels in electronics and nuclear energy after 1939. But once peace arrived, there was a baffling refusal to take the decisions needed to endow all British citizens with an education necessary for their and the country's needs.

It was OK for the upper and middle classes, who are pampered by education policy-makers. What is bizarre is the failure of Labour governments to defend the interests of the bottom 50 per cent. The other week, David Blunkett took an immense risk when he claimed a government initiative that may lead to reintroducing Latin and even Greek in inner-city schools. Dennis Skinner interjected to start chanting "Amo, amas, amat..." Conservative MPs followed him but dried up as he completed the conjugation: "Amamus, amatis, amant".

Skinner, of course, had a grammar school education in the Fifties; but what would have been of more use to all the other Skinners would have been a proper technical education, such as his equivalents on the Continent receive.

The single core failure has been the hostility to technical, vocational and commercial education from all sectors of the political firmament. We have no Massachusetts Institute of Technology churning out engineer- businessmen like Bill Gates. To be a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique in France or a Technische Hochschule in Germany or Switzerland is a matter of pride. Britain's polytechnics could not wait to change their names to universities.

RH Tawney railed against technical schools in the Twenties. Trade unions opposed these schools which might, they feared, produce skilled workers who could undercut the cosy closed shops and craft demarcations that so undermined British industry.

The 1944 Butler Act was based on three pillars: grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary moderns. The second pillar was never allowed to develop. For budget planners it was far cheaper to teach a child an arts subject or pure science than invest in the equipment to train an engineer or technologist. Labour ministers of the Sixties and Seventies "completed the destruction of the technical school sector", writes Sanderson laconically.

Today, business leaders bemoan the quality of British education and skills training, but fight any financial obligation to train effectively. Britain has fewer managers with a degree or any technical qualification than comparable countries. Stupid is as stupid gets. The price of stupidity is paid daily in incompetent work or the need to seek foreign technology, investment and managers to make more and more of the British economy work efficiently.

Sanderson does see some hope in the University of Industry, the ideas about lifelong learning and the making of headteachers into knights and dames. A better pay system based on qualification, as in France, or on incentives and performance, will also help to lift the morale of teachers.

But the answer today is as it was 100 years ago. Education cannot grow from the treetops down. The real work needs to be done in further education and vocational training - the Cinderella ghettos of British education. Making the British smarter is the best way to make us all richer.

Denis MacShane

The reviewer is Labour MP for Rotherham