If you really want to understand the subtly shifting place of education in the nation’s psyche, you could start by watching Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E. Dedicated professionals deploying skill, tenacity and tenderness towards citizens of every age, faith, shape and class – it’s a story we seem never to tire of. It’s proof that the NHS, despite all its problems, is still the nearest thing this country has to a religion.
And yet, this passion for our often struggling health system poses a conundrum that has long fascinated me. Both the NHS and free secondary education arose from the collective optimism of the years after the second world war, pillars of the newly founded welfare state. Yet while the NHS, set up in 1948, generated instant and enduring affection, the 1944 Education Act, which established the right to free secondary education for all children up to 15 (now 18), is far less lauded, and our school system has more often spawned a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and division.
In one sense, the reason is glaringly obvious. Although there had been discussion before the war about setting up a “multilateral” (that is, comprehensive) system of secondary education, parliament opted for a three-tiered arrangement, which became two as technical schools never took off. So was the grammar-secondary modern divide born, channelling most poor children into poorly funded, less well-regarded schools.
Imagine if NHS hospitals and surgeries had been set up with two entrances: one for the affluent, one for the poor. Or if politicians had spent the succeeding half a century dismissing big general hospitals as blinkered examples of an outdated “one injury fits all” ideology.
Of course, we need and expect different things from our health and education systems. While our encounters with the NHS are largely episodic, times of emergency and vulnerability, the school we attend is often taken as the crucible of our identity. The wealthy still use A&E, but many wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a local school, a reminder that perhaps the biggest mistake of that heroic postwar period was the failure to integrate the public schools into the new universal state system, so missing a unique opportunity to bridge what remains one of the most damaging divides in society.
For all that, there have been periods when one could glimpse a shift in public attitudes towards state education, an idealism to match the NHS.…