Flaws in education's White Paper
Sir, Mrs Thatcher's White Paper has received a good press, but it is possible to view two of its proposals as regressive, namely continued university expansion and the provision of many more nursery schools. If we ,set aside the views of those who have an obvious vested interest in the expansion of education there are still many people of progressive outlook who have been brought up to look upon education as a Good Thing, and continue to hope that more of it will one day bring into society the benefits that have so far eluded us. The assumptions and received opinions that have dominated education since the war continue very strong. But people learn from experience, if reluctantly; and the prospect of there being nearly a million students in higher education one day has produced a few worried foreheads and coughs of dissent.
But doubts some people may have in their minds about higher education do not usually extend to nursery schools. If these schools are provided for all under-fives, surely that is not regressive? Have many of your readers ever seen a young working mother bundling her three-year-old still half asleep into its pushchair and hurrying through the suburban streets at eight in the morning, in all weathers, to deposit the child at a nursery school a mile away; rushing thence to catch her train or bus, and after a day's work hurrying back again to pick up a fretful child at five or six in the evening?
Compare this with a small preschool play group in good surroundings. About fifteen to twenty children are taken two mornings a week to a church hall or somewhere similar with garden or open space attached, and there play under the supervision of three or four mothers on a rota basis, Some of these mothers may have had elementary training. The childern are able to play group games and with apparatus and toys too expensive or large for the average house. At noon they are collected by unexhausted mothers who have been shopping or doing their housework. The mothers benefit through their joint active interest in several children; the children benefit by mixing and playing with others away from home without being cut off for long periods from their mothers.
People with memories of what pioneers like Dr Montessori were able to do for poor children favour a nation-wide nursery school service because they believe it would be a Good Thing. Many parents want nursery schools because they go out to work, or would like to; sometimes because they must, sometimes for extra spending money. The Government presumably thinks that nursery education is politically popular. None of this has anything to do with the
welfare of the child.
Turning to higher education, perhaps the time has come to drop Robbins and think afresh. A modern industrial democracy needs many trained and skilled people and must make the most of its stock of brains. There must therefore be unrestricted opportunity. If we aim to develop the community's latent mental powers we can do so democratically and give higher education to everybody in the belief that where there is talent it will emerge by a process of natural selection, and that the remainder will be no worse for the experience; or we can do so selectively in the belief that it is useless and mischievous to take those who cannot profit by higher education beyond that point in mental preparation for social life and work to which all citizens should be taken.
If education is given selectively it must be based on two of the educational facts of life which democratically elected governments find it politically expedient to hide, namely, innate inequality and limited educability. Educability is a measure of the disposition to acquire knowledge and skills when the opportunity to do so is given. This disposition is strong only in a minority of the population; and if opportunity is taken to mean that everyone should be given higher education, more or less as a right and not selectively, it can only result in expanded universities receiving students who really have no business to be there.
In the end, most education is self-education. This especially applies to higher education. The desire and impulse must come from within; and you take from education what you bring to it. Little good is to be expected when people bring to it inapitiude or lack of interest.
The lessons of mass education in Britain could have been learnt earlier by examining the effects of education on the upper classes who never lacked access to knowledge and culture but for the most part turned away from them with lacklustre eyes. N. A. smith 12 Braemar Avenue, Bournemouth