Education might be the greatest gift we can give our children but it is frequently a source of controversy and contentious politics, as two recent developments show. In New Zealand, the opposition National Party is considering issuing $2,000 fines to parents of teenagers who leave education or training early and fail to get work, a policy it could impose if it returns to power in next year’s general election. At its recent conference, the UK's opposition Labour party voted to abolish private schools and drastically restrict university places for students who had been privately educated.
Both are startling proposals. As it happens, I approve of the first, not least since I recall the heartbreak felt by my father – a former secondary teacher – when promising pupils left school at 16 because they or their parents “didn’t see the point” of continuing. The second I regard as a nasty piece of class warfare, as well as an example of gross hypocrisy, given that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was partly privately educated and his shadow home secretary, the otherwise admirable Diane Abbott, sent her son to one of London’s leading fee-paying schools.
But both also show how necessary it is, if at all possible, to separate education from politics and from rigidity of any kind. This is because an inflexible ideological approach – tempting, of course, to politicians – can have perverse results.
The abolition of nearly all of the UK’s selective grammar state schools, for instance, failed to raise overall standards and instead dealt a terrible blow to social mobility in the country. It was grammar school, the Princeton and Oxford professor Alan Ryan once told me, that “pulled him by the hair” out of the Islington working class and set him on the road to what he became – the world’s greatest authority on the influential 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. That opportunity no longer exists for young people growing up in the same borough.
Why not make all state schools so good that there would be no reason to pay tens of thousands in private school fees? Or why not bring them into partnership with the state system – as done in France, where fees are low as most private schools receive funding from the government? But in Labour’s proposal, the ideology has won over common sense. If elected, the party would simply take the axe to institutions of excellence that save the taxpayer an estimated £7 billion (Dh32.5bn) a year.
A similar inflexibility has afflicted discussions about tertiary education, in which the argument that everyone should go to university seems to have become unassailable. This has had the unintended consequence of making those without degrees significantly less employable, especially in some Asian countries that have made a fetish of accumulating as many post-graduate qualifications as possible. No matter how much relevant experience you have, in some sectors if you do not have a degree, you cannot get a job.
Further, the insistence on university completely undervalues vocational training. Prince Charles and his cousin the Earl of Snowdon have been tireless advocates for the importance of training in traditional craftsmanship but they face a culture that now demands that you place the letters BA or BSc after your name.
As Lord Snowdon once told me: “Not everyone can be or should be a lawyer or an accountant. If people are not academic but they are good with their hands, they should be able to learn a trade. In Japan they have craftsmen who are officially designated living national treasures. But in the West, it’s not considered important enough.”
Ideological opposition to elitism in education has also caused damage. In the US, university degrees have over the past few years included courses such as “getting dressed” (at Princeton, no less), “tree climbing” (at Cornell), “how to watch television” and “the sociology of Miley Cyrus”. No doubt these are fascinating topics but their existence does add substance to the charge that the hugely expanding university sector is not placing sufficient weight on academic rigour and that some students are ending up with what are often called mickey-mouse degrees.
It is unpopular to say so, however, because that is deemed elitist. But it should be a source of pride for the US and the UK that all the top 10 universities in the world, according to The Times' higher education rankings for 2020, are in those two countries. Rather than levelling down, the answer surely is to preserve these institutions' status and achievement but ensure that every school child not only believes that he or she could earn a place at Harvard, Yale or Cambridge, but is genuinely given the opportunity to do so.
Many elite universities have been trying very hard to be more inclusive; too often they are blamed for insisting on maintaining their standards, when it is the poverty of low expectations that stops a wider mix of schoolchildren from applying.
Alas, it is all too easy to play politics with inequalities in education and too hard or insufficiently vote-catching to make the case for bringing back greater plurality in post-school study. That stretches from liberal arts courses at renowned universities to vocational qualifications and the trade apprenticeships that were widespread in many countries for centuries. At primary and secondary level, it means celebrating a mix of the private and the state-funded and helping create synergies between both sectors. The emphasis should be on what is practical and what works, not what fits within an ideological framework.
That might well mean that it is better for little Johnny to learn to be a stonemason than to take a course on “daytime serials: family and social roles” or “the joy of garbage”. And anyone who detects any snobbery in that sentence should think again. It is only those ideologically and politically bound to one idea of what education should be who would think becoming a builder or a craftsperson is a lesser path.
Take the politics out of it and let education be what the late Mary Warnock, an eminent headmistress and head of a Cambridge college, called it: “A long road on which all would start a journey that would last their whole lives.”
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum