My father is forever saying to me that we have the state to thank for pulling so many people in the 19th century out of illiteracy and into learning. Without the state, he says, there would be an underclass of illiterates.
This is a compelling and widely believed argument. But it isn’t true. It surprises many, but the huge increase in literacy and numeracy that took place over the 19th century came before the state ever got involved in education.
In 1820 one of the first studies of British education, made by the Henry Brougham Select Committee, was concluded that, in 1818, some 478,000 pupils were being schooled in Britain. Just eight years later Brougham undertook another study – and found that the numbers had doubled.
By 1855, 99% of men recruited to the navy and marines could read. The education historian E. G. West calculated that by 1880, the year compulsion came, ‘over 95% of fifteen-year-olds were literate’. These levels were achieved without the help of the state, in a time when man was considerably less advanced and when less was available to him. They were achieved before education was free and compulsory by statute.
Compulsion came in 1880, though the process towards this began in 1870 with Forster’s Education Act. State schooling did not become free until 1891.
Industrial Revolution : wikispaces.com
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the increased productivity it made possible, incomes began rising from the turn of the 19th century. As incomes rose, parents could afford increasing amounts of education for their children. The vigorous growth in schooling was, simply, a response to rising incomes – which is natural and normal.
Self-improvement is one of the main priorities of most families, if not the main priority, once food, clothing and shelter needs are met. Income per head was rising between 1801 and 1871 at the rate of about 1% per year; yet, says E. G. West, but ‘the average annual growth rate of day scholars was well over 2%.’
If education was so good, we must ask, why then did the state need to get involved? The reason it did was that there was still delinquency at the bottom of society – that 5% of illiterates. It was believed compulsory education would help them and prevent them from entering a criminal lifestyle. It was also an argued principle that state education could help to ‘form the thinking of the young’. (Yikes!).
Now, in the UK we have, for various reasons (onerous regulation being one of them), rampant inflation in private school fees. Meanwhile, people are taxed so heavily they are left with little money in their pockets. Most cannot afford to educate their children privately, though poll after poll shows they would do so if they could. Instead, they find themselves falling into the arms of the state for their education. Yet public education is one of the greatest sources of discontent and dissatisfaction, not just in the UK, but worldwide. One must question how relevant the syllabus is to the world in which we now live.
People want to learn, people want to improve themselves. That is normal and natural. But compulsory education by statute can have the opposite effect. It can deter rather than generate interest.
Let us empower people once again. Let us tax them less, let them keep the profits of their endeavour and let them choose for themselves how they educate their young. The evidence of the 19th century is that they will make a much better job of it than government.