Education and the Coronavirus: A Farewell to Schooling?

Education and the Coronavirus:
A Farewell to Schooling?
Sean Gabb
19th May 2020

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The latest turn in an increasingly dull coverage of the Coronavirus panic is a proposed reopening of the schools. The Government wants them open as soon as possible for at least some of their students. The teaching unions are bleating that no one should go back until their members can be sure of not catching anything. The headmasters are worried about compliance with the social distancing rules. As a conservative of sorts, I think I am supposed to side with the Government and the pro-Conservative journalists – denouncing the teachers as a pack of idlers where not cowards, and insisting that those factories of essential skills must be set back in full production before the summer holidays. Of course, my settled view as a libertarian is that the teaching unions deserve all the support I have never so far given them. The schools must remain closed until no one is in any danger of so much as an attack of hay fever. The schools have been largely closed since the end of March. The longer they stay largely closed, the better. Best of all if they never reopen – or never reopen as they have been since attendance was made compulsory at the end of the nineteenth century.

I quote John Stuart Mill on compulsory schooling:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and  successful,  it  establishes  a  despotism  over  the  mind,  leading  by natural tendency to one over the body.
(On Liberty, 1859, Chapter 5, “Applications.”)

This has always been the case in some degree. The spread of state schooling in England after 1870, and particularly after it was made compulsory in 1880, and then extended in 1902, is probably inseparable from the nationalist hysteria that drove our participation in the Great War. It also may explain the perverse belief, general until the 1970s, in the unique goodness and honesty of our ruling class. This being said, reasonable patriotism is to be encouraged; and, compared with others, our ruling class was not until recently so bad. A further point is that compulsory state schooling used to be reasonably effective at giving the mass of people a basic education. By 1960, most people were literate and numerate. They could spell and write grammatical prose. They had some exposure to the English classics, and the means of exploring these to greater depth if they wished. They had some understanding of history and the sciences. You can tell much about the quality of a people by examining what is read and watched. Looking at the popular arts in England during much of the twentieth century explains why this passage in On Liberty was less often discussed than his arguments for freedom of speech. Mill was right in the abstract. He could be shown to be right in certain particulars. But the evils of compulsory state schooling were mostly potential.

All this, however, is in the past. Since about 1980, schooling of all kinds has been made into a concerted means of indoctrination. The cultural leftists have captured both the classrooms and the curriculum. I will not elaborate on this claim. Some will argue over terminology, some over the merits of the capture, but hardly anyone denies the broad fact. One of the main functions of modern schooling is to bring about and to protect a radical departure from the old intellectual culture of this country.

Much of this departure has been achieved by preaching in the classroom. But it is supplemented by a growing bureaucracy of surveillance. The teachers themselves are watched, and they can be punished for dissenting from the established discourse. There is, for example, the Government’s Prevent strategy, which applies to the whole state machinery. Its purpose is to identify and root out anyone defined as a “political extremist.” Anyone identified as such is effectively banned from working with children and young people, and probably in the state sector as a whole.

Another feature of the Prevent strategy is that anyone working with children and young people must himself become a spy. Any student who speaks or behaves out of turn must be reported. In 2015, the Safeguarding Children Board of the London Borough of Camden published Keeping Children and Young People Safe from Radicalisation and Extremism: Advice for Parents and Carers. Its aim was to “help parents and carers recognise when their children may be at risk from radicalisation.” How to spot “radicalisation”? The signs include “showing a mistrust of mainstream media reports and belief in conspiracy theories”, “appearing angry about government policies, especially foreign policy”, and “secretive behaviour and switching screens when you come near.”

For the avoidance of doubt, I disapprove of any preaching in a classroom funded by the taxpayers. If made a head of department, I would warn my teachers against telling the students his own views on sex or politics or anything else. Again for the avoidance of doubt, if, as a teacher in any kind of school, it came to my attention that they were plotting a crime, I would report my students to the relevant authority. My objection is that the present system is both one-sided and Orwellian.

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It is one-sided because only some personal views are banned from the classroom. Take the case of Robert Haye, a Seventh Day Adventist and science teacher. In 2013, he denounced homosexuality as disgusting and a sin. He was banned indefinitely from teaching. That he was black was deemed no defence. Yes, I would have dispensed with his services – though stopping him from teaching elsewhere would never be on my agenda. That I do not share his opinion is beside the point. But Mr Haye would have faced no disciplinary action had he preached instead from some approved text on sex or politics, or on “the climate emergency,” or even on the wickedness of voting Conservative. As for spying on students, I once sat in a meeting where a teacher suggested alerting the safeguarding authorities to one of his students who was outspoken in his dislike of the European Union. I do not for a moment believe this suggestion would have been made had the student’s opinion been on the other side.

The system is Orwellian because it collects and stores information that it should be no one’s business to collect and store. I do not think any specific use is made of the information – not unless it is evidence of a crime. Even then, much of it cannot be used because of the data protection laws, or is lost when hardware or software are upgraded. But the knowledge that they are, or may be, under surveillance has a chilling effect on what people say, and perhaps eventually on what they think. It makes some into hypocrites and others into sheep. And this is an evil in itself. The system would be just as objectionable if, after some populist revolution, it were made into a means of indoctrinating children with the joys of Brexit and a noninterventionist foreign policy.

A further objection is a centralised and prescriptive National Curriculum. Too many subjects are squeezed into the classroom. These are often taught – and must often be taught – as almost random collections of facts. They are then tested and ranked almost to death. Students are awash with homework and course work and long projects that leave little time for private study and reflection.

Then we have the marketising of schooling. I will be charitable to Tony Blair and his minsters. They probably believed that introducing private enterprise would improve the quality of education. I do allow that many schools, about a decent as they can be in their general circumstances, have taken advantage of academy status, and to their benefit. Turning from these, however, private enterprise, as it has been introduced, makes almost everything worse. If you come to my Centre for Ancient Studies, you are the customer. My job is to give you what you want. If I fail to deliver, or you decide that Greek or Latin as I teach it is not after all what you want, you withdraw. If you send your children to many of the new academies, you are not the customer. The State is the customer. Your children are so much material for giving the authorities what they want. If omnipresent surveillance is wanted, omnipresent surveillance will be given. If performance in league tables is required, children and their teachers will be worked like slaves, regardless of whether this contributes in any reasonable sense to education.

These academies are subject to the same corruptions as any other private business with a contract from the State. As much money as can be is concentrated at the top. Compliance is given to the letter of any requirement, the spirit forgotten. Much teaching is delivered by part-time contractors, who are managed by outside agencies – outside agencies, often with personal ties to the academies. Those teachers who are given regular contracts of employment must sign up to the usual declarations of corporate love.

On this point, I was once invited for a whole term to take the place of a classics teacher who was off sick. I had to fill in a long application form. One of the questions was:

What do you feel sets the xxx xxx apart from other schools and Academy groups?

My answer:

I am sure it is an excellent educator. After some research on the Internet, I have seen nothing negative about it that deserves attention. It is one among many of the public-private partnerships that have delivered an increasing share of England’s education since the Blair Government decided this was the best way to improve education standards.

I was told at my induction meeting that this was not the sort of answer normally welcomed from an applicant. It was an untruth even so. A minute’s research had flagged up a scandal about the fiddling of inspection data. There was another scandal about “off-rolling” – this being the deliberate exclusion of weaker students from sitting their GCSEs, thereby improving average performances. The students were made to dress in silly uniforms that got sniggers in the street. If I saw them speaking out of class, it was in hushed whispers that trailed off when I was seen to be close. The staff had to wear black at all times. They were equally scared of those above them. The lessons were as joyless as can be imagined. After a few stony silences, I gave up on my usual tendency to jokes and irrelevant digressions. I worked out my time. I took the money and left. Since I am lucky enough to offer niche subjects that allow me to pick and choose my clients, I never went back. I think of that experience as often as I hear some politician enthusing about how standards have risen.

I went to what I knew at the time was a wretchedly bad school. Scott Lidgett Comprehensive School in Rotherhithe was a place filled with a thousand violent imbeciles. I will not call the teachers the sweepings of their profession. Some were, though more had simply given up trying. I made my seven years there tolerable by playing truant for much of the three central years. When I did attend, I learned almost nothing that I could not, and did not, get for myself by reading the textbooks. The only exception was mathematics, where a teacher introduced me to geometry. I became rather good at this, and it set me on a path that eventually led to David Hume. But I remember my first day in that place, and I remember the last. I have never had any doubt which was better.

I was lucky. I spent my three years of truancy in various libraries. No child ever wastes his time in miscellaneous reading. Everything comes in useful somewhere, even if as background for something else. My focus on the Ancient World was decidedly not a waste of time. In those years of complete freedom, I gained the skills and confidence that would carry me through O-Levels and A-Levels and through university. A combination of intellectual arrogance and what I am now assured is autism may have limited my worldly success. However, I owe nearly everything I have become to my time not spent at Scott Lidgett.

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The Coronavirus panic has now given to millions of children a similar opportunity. The Internet is the greatest and most democratic library that ever existed. The riches of five thousand years are heaped before anyone who will only lean forward and take them. I grant that the leaning forward is what counts the most, and not all will take, or be able to take, the opportunity. If it can be improved, though, the world cannot be perfected. There is a case for making sure that everyone can read and write and use the four functions of arithmetic. But this is something that should be achieved at primary school, and only if families do not feel able to do better themselves. After that, all children should be left in the care of their families. Children, with the guidance of their parents, should be left to make their own ways in life. This may mean continued learning – perhaps even schooling, or perhaps some mixture of schooling and other learning. It may mean some other preparation for the future. Granted a decent primary education, these other ways do not exclude a later return to learning.

Those who want one will find an education regardless of circumstances. Most schooling is an interference with their personal growth. Schooling is not the same as education. The suspension of schooling since the end of March, and its likely continued disruption for at least the next year is a liberation that all children should welcome. And it is a liberation that anyone of conservative or libertarian inclinations should welcome.

I do not imagine that state schooling will die all at once. There will be some kind of return in September. But the lawyers and insurance companies, and scared parents and teachers, will for a long time make this incomplete. Children will be called into school for a few days a week, or every second week. There will be a continued migration on-line of learning. The present chaos of provision will stabilise. The compulsory attendance laws have already been relaxed, and I do not think they will be enforced again with their old rigour.

As for surveillance and control, these have been weakened. The more the life of a nation is focussed on the home, the more opaque that nation becomes to inspection. The bureaucracies of surveillance and control will not be disbanded – not unless really big cuts are needed to state spending to compensate for the present orgy of subsidies and welfare. Every so often, they will find something to write into their performance reports. But we can hope they will soon have been crippled beyond recovery.

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Now, I may seem to have wavered on the value of schooling as education. Sometimes, I denounce it. Sometimes, I admit its potential value. Here is my reasoning. I doubt the value of schooling as it has so far been provided. I see limited value in crowding several dozen children into a room and giving them something, and giving it at the same speed, that not all of them may want. This explains much of the disruption and absenteeism that is one of the excuses for those bureaucracies of surveillance and control. But let us suppose that most schooling were to remain on-line, and that it were to be voluntary. Let us further suppose that schools were no longer constrained by classroom space, and students by geographic location. Let us suppose that students could choose from a range of providers – one subject here, and delivered in this way, another subject there, and delivered in that way. Let us possibly suppose a voucher scheme, in which the State would pay for lessons from any provider meeting certain basic standards of honesty and competence. Grant all or most of this, and schooling would become more aligned with education. There would be no more boredom, no more bullying or disruption, no more surveillance, no more irrelevance. Education would become for a greater number what it has always been for a lucky few – something that turns on a light in the mind that never goes out, something that contributes to the happiness of individuals and the wealth of a nation.

I will close by repeating that the Coronavirus panic will, sooner or later, be seen as a disproportionate response that has damaged businesses and jobs and even the pretence of balanced government finances. At the same time, it is useful to look beyond the immediate costs. One of the benefits may be the accelerated decline of a schooling system that has its origins in the enlightened despotisms of the eighteenth century, and that has never been suited to the needs and wants of a free people.


  1. What many don’t understand is public education was not a part of early America. The greatest nation ever happened before modern education, and if we read their writings, we see a huge disparage between them and most people of today. Education is a parental responsibility. Each family must decide what is best for their children. As a teacher, I understood this, and while I strongly taught the basics, and taught the curriculum, I always sought to get them thinking for themselves. In this way, they would be better able to differentiate between rhetoric and reality. As I explained before, I was working myself out of a job. A good teacher, if they do well, encourages the youth to be independent, responsible, and ready to face the world. A good doctor works to retire early, getting patients to need them less. Any good instructor’s aim is to encourage individuality and self-determination. That’s what made America become.

  2. “School prepares people for the alienating institutionalization of life, by teaching the necessity of being taught. Once this lesson is learned, people loose their incentive to develop independently; they no longer find it attractive to relate to each other, and the surprises that life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition are closed.”
    Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

  3. Recently, I was offered the opportunity, with many parents who work for one company, to possibly run a type learning center. I pondered upon it. After decades of teaching, I saw the job as working myself out of the job, in the sense of encouraging independence. What these parents are finding, during their online instructions, it they feel the necessity of having to do what the teachers did. And that’s where the cultural ideas have changed. What the parents need to understand is they don’t need to do what the teachers did. Far from it. If they have the texts, the online instructions, then they can think outside the box. Bring in additional materials of interest. Do experiments. Develop projects. Go fishing and learn about the environment. Work on bikes. Whatever. And find what they’re interested in and let that educate without thinking diploma. The learning I’ve done, that was most meaningful, came from different jobs, hobbies, and my own research, because I was interested. *These parents have a wonderful opportunity to encourage interests and creativity. Yes, ensure quality writing skills (i.e. grammar, essays, stories, plays), but use interest to drive the writing. Encourage reading skills (Yes, some text book, but more books of interest so they want to read and create projects/plays. Then, everything else is up for grabs. But make sure they know American history, not the rewritten type.

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