Reading the Hansard publications of education debates from the past is a glorious habit to get into (the best links are pointed to via the Living Heritage website). Not are the debates frighteningly like those ongoing today, but they provide a welcome sense of reality into political debate. In 1918, unafraid of being picked on by the media, MPs seem to speak more candidly about what they see around them, and do so in ways that are less combative and much more concerned for children. The same concern is evident today, but far too often it sounds phony in comparison to the genuine alarm raised in the past – possibly because so many MPs genuinely had no idea about poverty but the only way they could find out was going out and meeting people, not hiding at photo opportunities and reading about ‘the average man’ on Twitter.
One of my favourite quotes comes from a debate on the 1918 Education Act, a very important Act that raised the school leaving age to 14 and provided some, very patchy, provision for 14-18 education. It also attempted to ‘raise the status’ of the teaching profession by providing teachers’ salaries more centrally and at higher rates.
However, the quote that made me nod so furiously did not raise any of these. instead the speaker discusses why schools needed to be improved, and it is still pertinent today. It is amazing how often the debate in education concentrates around ‘saving’ the disadvantaged or ‘dragging them from a horrible life’. What this forgets is that many people in limited economic situations are not unhappy, nor do they wish to become ‘posher’ nor take part in ‘higher culture’. Their issues are ones of poverty not of ignorance or misunderstanding of the beauties of, say, Latin or Opera. To confuse the two is to misunderstand how poverty feels or what its consequences are. In general, life is not significantly upset by not understanding Wagner if you have other music you find comforting; in contrast, it definitely is worse if you don’t have enough to eat.
And so to the quote from the echoes of time:
“This Bill, at any rate, does recognise that education is a social problem, and, like all social problems, is interdependent with other social problems. You are not going to make the best of education if children live under adverse physical conditions-and in the moral atmosphere of slums and of poverty. I desire every child to have a fair opportunity, and I am quite sure that education is going to play a great part in that regard. I do not want that chance to be given to the child in order that it may escape from its class or get the better of other people, but in order that it may become a better citizen and be able to give greater service to the community.”