When it comes to education, why don't politicians ever learn? In the 1960s I passed the old 11-Plus and was destined for either a seminary or a Catholic grammar school. However, instead of heading off to the Jesuits and having a classical education beaten in to me, I found myself being bussed 12 miles every day to survive the rigours of a 2,000-strong, all-boys institution to have formal education beaten out of me. I was, I now know, part of a new social experiment: comprehensive schools.
I ended up with four GCE O-levels and one A-level, way below expectation, although my later life would prove that I had received something far more valuable. An education about life itself. One that would take me back to university and an honorary professorship, lead to Grange Hill, Brookside, Hollyoaks and to my chairing National Museums Liverpool and the UK City of Culture Programme. Many of my fellow bus-travellers were not so fortunate.
Looking back, I also now know, I was part of what has become a recurrent, and destructive, theme in British schools: political tinkering. Then it was comprehensives, later it was raising the school leaving age, more recently academies and raising the school leaving age again, just as GCEs were replaced by GCSEs, and now they too are to be replaced with new baccalaureate-style examinations. All of which demonstrates the same level of reluctant enlightenment that has lingered since the 1870 Education Act established the principle of state-funded education. Enlightenment supports the idea that education is a good thing, but reluctance persists due to never quite answering the question that underpins the idea: what, exactly, is education for?
In 1870 those promoting state education focused on the need for a more literate and better-skilled workforce, but those opposed thought that if the state could not provide a classical education, it would only be providing half an education and therefore should not do it at all.
More than 140 years later, the argument still has a familiar ring. Is formal schooling meant to better prepare people for work, as it was designed in the industrial 19th century, or is it more to do with the post-industrial 20th-century notion about developing the "whole person", offering a rounded education to bring out the best in people and give them a better understanding of the world itself?
Most people, if asked, would say both. However, most people, if pushed, will polarise. Some will put work first. Others, education for its own sake. The latter group, usually, are those that have acquired a good education and a good job and the lifestyle that goes with it. Education, for them, is a self-reinforcing process. The same education reinforces the same values. There is nothing wrong with this. We all progress through inheriting our present from our past, both of which shape our future. It is the social as well as the socialisation power of education.
The less secure, though, without qualifications, skills and consequently jobs, may experience a sense of inadequacy, which in turn can breed disillusionment to the extent they will "opt out".
They may seek alternative, perhaps anti-social lifestyles, or come on to the streets to riot as in 2011. In more extreme cases, history has shown us that those seeking totalitarian control first seek to destroy education, and then those already educated. No wonder education policy is such a political battleground.
However, if we accept, as successive governments have suggested through their various incarnations of citizenship programmes, that formal state-sponsored schooling is designed to reinforce values, then those values either have to come from a common creed or common purpose. Yet both have been under increasing stress in recent decades as both formal religion and mass manufacturing have declined, meaning that the main opportunities, perhaps forums, for traditional social interaction, through workplace and church, have also declined.
Put another way, you neither receive nor pass on common values or mutual respect if you do not mix with other people. That seems, inescapably, to reinforce what most parents believe: education should lead to a job. I could not have achieved what I have without first getting a job. Even if that was only to teach me both how the world worked and the discovery that it was not what I wanted for the rest of my life.
Within that is the biggest challenge for national politicians, especially those espousing a localism agenda. National priorities are inevitably geared to a nation's place in a global economy, while what most parents want for their children is a job. A local job. To be part of their community.
Yet it is this that is repeatedly missed, or deliberately overlooked, for while pursuing a national curriculum, local jobs along with local communities have continued to decline and deteriorate. In 1870, the dark satanic mills had some form of conformity and commonality of production process, but gone are the days of large communities relying on large employers to provide that first rung on the jobs ladder.
It runs deeper. No matter what the system, once officialdom starts drawing up national criteria, value judgements are inherent within the process and young people will be categorised, selected and segregated according to national, not local need. The Government-sponsored ebacc, or English baccalaureate, has already set out its stall as being for the "more academically minded".
Labour's vocational baccalaureate, or vbacc perhaps, by adopting a word that is now synonymous with "non-academic", falls into the same trap. Neither will bridge the national education and local employment divide.
Only when our politicians come out of denial and admit that no national system can deliver the myriad needs of 21st-century local communities, will we abandon euphemisms, whether classical, academic, vocational or non-academic and start the process of attaching equal weight and value to all learning. Only then will we start using education to rebuild communities still ravaged by deindustrialisation.
That may need a true spirit of cross-party and community coalition to finally stop tinkering, step back and take time to answer the question: what is education for?
It won't happen overnight, but then again, we have been at it for 140 years.
Phil Redmond is the author of 'Mid-term Report' (Century/Random House, £18.99)Reuse content