It’s not just BREXIT: yet another flagship UKIP policy is being adopted by the government. If Theresa May is to be believed, Grammar schools are poised to make a roaring comeback.
Forgive me from sounding churlish, but a far more pressing issue than allowing academic selection in schooling is the lack of any clarity or vision on providing high quality schooling for the less academic. The majority of pupils will never attend academically selective schools, and it is they who risk – and often already are – thrown on the scrapheap as automation eats its way up the value chain.
In order to profit from the robot age, it is far better to concentrate on very high quality vocational schools that can bring young people the skills to build and maintain the devices that will dominate a machine-centric world. Everyone agrees that in theory they are a good thing, but the trick is making that happen: the enormous problem is that those who set, implement or critique policy are inevitably from academic backgrounds themselves, with similar aspirations for their own children. Probably because of this huge cognitive bias, Britain has always been atrocious at educating the less academically gifted. Remember that during the 1950s many technical schools were supposed to be built: very few were precisely because the huge cultural biases in the system. The result was a brutal system that condemned many children to the humiliation of academic failure without providing any form of alternative. Do we seriously want a return to that, and do we wonder who our productivity growth is dismal when the majority of our workforce is so badly skilled?
Instead we should be aiming for a far more radical vision that would allow all sorts of schools to flourish, selective or otherwise. I know he is hardly flavour of the month with many ‘Kippers, but nonetheless I strongly encourage anyone to read Douglas Carswell’s brilliant and revolutionary manifesto “The end of politics and the birth of iDemocracy” to see where we should be heading. Admittedly Carswell’s vision is a form of technological utopianism but his central contention – that policy makers fail because they try to order the world by top down design, rather than by the bottom up mechanism that modern technology allows – is correct. Technology is already transforming education: millions already use online platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity for high-end courses and training. Unsurprisingly this is most advanced in IT, where constant re-skilling is essential, but it is rapidly spreading to other fields. In terms of primary or secondary level education, the implications for the burgeoning Home Schooling movement are obvious, and online providers of resources are already in on the game.
So how to deliver a “bottom up” revolution? As Allister Heath explains in the Telegraph, allowing schools to make a profit is vital to increasing their number and diversity of provision. It is only when those who have the vested interest and means to set up vocational schools, for example, that good quality institutions will ever be created in sufficient numbers. It is only engineering and manufacturing businesses who have the resources, the know-how and the vested interests to set up large numbers of vocational schools. However, businesses are good at running businesses, not charities or non-profits, which explains why so few, with the honourable exception of those like JCB, have hitherto done so.
Home schooling is becoming an increasing popular option. Government policy should also be more equitable to it by giving a generous tax-free allowance equivalent to the cost of educating their child at school to parents who choose to home-school. This may be especially attractive to many professional women who want to spend more time with their children, who could then afford to home-school their offspring either full time or part-time, the latter perhaps in combination with their existing career. Eventually we may even see the emergence of specialist schools dedicated to working symbiotically with part-time home-schoolers.
In essence, the joy of the free market is that it lets hundreds of schools contend, testing the inevitable cognitive bias of each against others through competition. In contrast, the current singular obsession with Grammar schools is, to coin a phrase, an analogue solution for a digital age.
Having seen it’s flagship education policy of Grammar schools now adopted by the Tories, UKIP should champion the cause of vocational education and the home schooling movement by proposing even more radical solutions to education that will help all our children.