Some of the more aggressive critics of this blog often make the case that I am arguing here for a ‘return’ to a ‘Victorian’ educational model, perhaps aspiring to re-create a ‘golden age’ in which education worked well and from which late-twentieth-century progressivism took us away. I want in this post to set out a few clarifiers.
First, there never was an educational golden age in which the kinds of things I argue for in this blog existed. I have absolutely no desire to return to the past, and indeed if I were to give an overall judgement for our system, I would say it is better than it has ever been in the past. Our education system is not ‘broken’, for this implies that it was once ‘not broken’. People disagree over our future trajectory and there are crucial debates to be had here which require lots of hard thought and not a few compromises, but I want to be clear that I in no way think that a ‘return to the past’ would be in the best interests of our society.
Part of this conclusion is that there are a number of educational practices in the past that I think are wrong. Some have very few supporters today, including corporal punishment, having a lower school leaving age and giving boys and girls different educations. For me, it is good that we no longer do these things. Schools in the past were in general less good at supporting children with special needs, nor did they have a sufficiently large role in protecting children from abuse outside of school. Selection based on intelligence at age ten is something else I am glad fell by the wayside and, although there are still people who support this policy, I do not. I also disagree with some of the assumptions people made about curriculum in the past. It is wrong, for example, that some children were put into particular ‘pathways’ based on their social class. I disagree with the presumption that ‘not academic’ is a synonym for ‘vocational’. There are still some people today who argue that ‘vocational’ routes are ‘more appropriate’ for children, but I would like us to treat this as a past relic that can also be put aside.
So do I want to recreate a Victorian or 1950s education system?