Economy and Education
JUST prominence was given in the course of last week to a letter over the name of the Archbishop of York and other distinguished signatories, urging that wherever the axe of economy might fall again it should not fall in the field of education, and voicing, inter alia, the warning that if economy " takes the form of raising fees in secondary schools and diminishing the number of free places, it will diminish the supply of trained ability available for leadership." On Saturday there was pub- lished a Board of Education Circular calling on local education authorities to reconsider the whole scale of fees in secondary schools under their control, abolishing completely free secondary education altogether except for children the circumstances of whose parents are such as to justify a complete remission of fees. That is the broad issue the new circular raises—whether free secondary education, regardless of the means of the parents, is to continue or not. The question of what fees should be charged, if charged at all, and how they might be graduated, is of less importance. If Lord Irwin's new proposals are to be fairly judged it must be remembered that their origin is pretty certainly to be ascribed not to the Board of Education but to the Treasury. Economy is the order of the day, not merely because the Treasury likes economizing (or making other Departments econo- mize) but because the taxpayer dislikes high taxation. The Board of Education has no doubt been called on to make new savings somewhere and it has to decide where to make them. On children's minds or on their bodies ? On the health services or the teaching services ? Must the provision of new buildings be discouraged ? Must the number of teachers be reduced, with more unemploy- ment in the teaching profession, and larger and unmanage- able classes in the schools, as result ? Or can the requisite saving be effected by a readjustment of fees in secondary schools assisted' from public funds ?
If those were the questions Lord Irwin had to put himself it is hard to blame him for the answer he gave. Elementary and secondary education cannot be put on the same footing as regards fees, if only because the former is compulsory and must therefore almost of neces- sity be free. The principle now accepted beyond cavil, and abundantly justified in practice, as regards secondary education is that it shall be available to every child from an elementary school who shows himself (or, of course, herself) capable of profiting by it. But hitherto such secondary education has been free—free, that is, for the children coming up from the elementary school, though not free usually for other children obtaining the same educa- tion in the same school. In future the parents of children who qualify for it will pay up to the limit of their means: Against that ruling various criticisms may be brought—that it will mean that parents who arc required to pay for their children's secondary education will not send their children to secondary schools at all ; that some parents who do send them may be made to pay more than they can rightly afford ; and that in any case an inquisitorial and undesirable means test is in- volved. In the first objection there may be some sub- stance, though the Board of Education makes it clear that fees are still to be remitted altogether where the circumstances of the parents justify it. As regards Ow second, that depends on the discretion and breadth of mind with which the local authorities and their officials carry out a new and invidious task. As regards the third, it is to be observed that the obligation to pay fees is to fall wholly or almost wholly on persons who are above the income-tax exemption limit. If therefore there is a question of establishing the family's means all that will be necessary in most eases is for the parent to produce confidentially to one official a return he has already made confidentially to another official. As for the means test itself, it is already perfectly familiar in a slightly different form at Oxford and Cainbridge and in the public schools from Eton downwards. Its introduction in connexion with rate-aided secondary schools cannot be condemned as unreasonable. Most economies are unwelcome. Sonic may involve some real hardship. This particular economy may result in the loss of a secondary education to some children whose parents could pay for it, but prefer not to pay. But if economies must be, and if the Board of Education has to bear its share, it has probably chosen the least undesirable of the various undesirable expedients available.
But if that is the situation so far as the Board is concerned, it none the less remains true that the local education authorities are having a new and heavy responsibility laid on them. The Board does not intend that there shall be fewer children passing up from the primary to the secondary school in the future. But. it does intend that there shall be fewer passing up at no cost at all to their parents. There will he fewer free places, but as many " special places," as they are now to be called. The task for the local authorities will be so to administer the new regulations as to ensure that no elementary school child deserving higher education shall miss it. That will not be easy. The Board suggests .1:9 a year as the minimum fee at a normal secondary school. That is roughly 3s. 6d. a week. Many parents will decline to pay it and the authorities have no power to compel them. It is on that point that the working of the regula- tions creates anxiety. The principle in present circum- stances must be accepted, but the exemption-limit might be fixed at, say, 1:5 a week instead of the 5:3 to £4 suggested.