In the run-up to the UK General Election,
will publish a series of essaysreposing political issues. Tackling everything from education to immigration tocapitalism, the aim of the ‘Question Everything’ essays is to encourage people torethink the past, the present and the future. In this first essay, Frank Furedi argues that treating education as a ‘material good’ rather than a ‘mental good’ has seriousimplications for schooling and the intellectual capital of our society.
The good news is that everyone is talking about education in the run-up to the UK GeneralElection in May. The bad news is that the discussion is too focused on technical andorganisational matters, which means that the real debate that we need – about the substanceof education – hasn’t even started.This failure to address and clarify issues of substance could provide New Labour with a get-out clause in relation to education. And that is dreadful news. The New Labour government’sappalling record on education is in a class of its own, and yet it has not caused the party anyserious electoral problems. Indeed, a recent poll for BBC TV’s
suggested that theConservative Party has failed to capitalise on the government’s depressing record oneducation. Yes, the majority of the electorate knows that New Labour has failed to deliver onits educational promises – but it remains unaware of the
of the damage thegovernment has done in the world of education.It is worth noting that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, although spending oneducation has increased by more than £30billion per year under Labour, value for money hasfallen steadily. Of course it is almost impossible to measure improvements in schoolstandards, but, if anything, the ONS figures actually underestimate how badly the money wasspent. The recent slight improvements in GCSE scores and exam results should not be seenas a reflection of improved educational standards. Over the past 11 years, grade inflation,helped by fiddling the curriculum and the system of examinations, has become the norm.Consequently, educational statistics tend to obscure rather than clarify. Even worse,education has become so politicised and bureaucratised that the intellectual value of theschool curriculum has been seriously compromised.It is not surprising that the government’s massive investment in education has been wasted.Throwing money at education seldom yields positive qualitative outcomes. Investing financialresources can improve teachers’ living standards and the quality of school buildings andequipment. Such improvements are desirable, of course, but they are unlikely to make anysignificant impact on educational standards. Why? Because although money has a directimpact on the quality of material goods, it can rarely have a positive impact on education,which is a mental good. Public spending can enhance physical infrastructure and improve thematerial goods available to society. But mental goods – such as knowledge, appreciation of the arts, civic pride, intellectual curiosity – are unlikely to increase and decrease in responseto financial stimuli or, for that matter, government policy. That is why, as the experience of theUS shows, there is not always a correlation between a nation’s wealth and its standards of educational attainment.