schools It is one of the great myths of the *‘welfare’ *state in the UK that the state’s *education *legislation and schools are largely responsible for educating many people who otherwise would, and whose like historically did, remain uneducated. This view is not borne out by the facts nor usually taught as history, even in state schools. It appears to be something that people simply assume. Or why were state schools introduced? Who would provide them now if not the state? The sentimental *propaganda of Charles Dickens’s novels, especially Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, also remains a misleading influence with respect to typical non-state schooling (as well as to the *industrial revolution generally).

As E. G. West (1922-2001) has shown in his iconoclastic books and articles on education, this assumption is the opposite of the *truth. Before the Education Act of 1870 established the first *tax-funded schools, school attendance and literacy rates were well above 90 percent. This was partly through *religious and *charitable schools but not least through the, often unfairly maligned, Dame Schools that existed on virtually every street (Dame School class sizes, which had originally been criticized by the *statists, were typically exceeded by later state school class sizes). The move to introduce compulsory ‘free’ schooling seems partly motivated by a desire to control the ‘dangerous’ growth of literacy among the ‘lower orders’. *Nationalism, religion, *morals and other ‘appropriate’ subjects were to be imposed on them. And even most *liberals thought state schooling would be for the best. But all this was so disliked by the parents that it was only by increasingly *privileging state schools and penalizing the private alternatives that the state was eventually able virtually to *monopolize schooling. There are parallels with the history of schooling in the USA and many other *countries, but England was one of the last to introduce state schooling.

Due to the demise of near-universal *anarchic education, it is now hard for people to grasp the enormous *opportunity cost of the state system. However, certain facts remain clear. There is an ever-growing number of people in the UK and the USA who are not even functionally literate and numerate (and some of them are teachers in the state schools). Today at least one in five now leaves state schooling after many years while remaining *objectively, functionally illiterate. This is the hard evidence of the disaster of state schooling that cannot be disguised by any amount of fiddling examination results, which have come to sound as fanciful as Stalinist production statistics, or by increasing *university places. There are still some state schools that cater for the academically inclined. But most state schools can barely be described as educational institutions any longer. Private, voluntary schools were at worst day-care centres for *children with the bonus of a little education. But compulsory, state schools are more like day-prisons for the *crime of being young. And the violence that occurs in them often puts the children at risk.

Because of their appalling standards—and possibly also the inverted *apartheid of compulsory integration among the *races, ethnicities and religions—ordinary parents are increasingly going private. The simple fact is that people want education for their children and a *competitive *market can, in various forms, provide it much more cheaply and efficiently (partly by dropping the millstone of *political correctness). In this respect, education is just like any other good or service. The whole system could be *depoliticized overnight to the great benefit of all. If the *poor could originally afford Dame Schools, the relatively rich modern ‘poor’ can now afford very much better; though charity, scholarships and home schooling remain important options too.

All that said, it is not likely that continuing schooling to, ever, higher ages will suit most young people (at least in the absence of hothousing; see *education); and it is a violation of their *liberty for the state, or even for parents, to force it on them when they would rather start to work or do anything else (see *child labor; *circumcision, infibulation, etc., of children). Having achieved basic literacy and numeracy they could, in any case, come back to formal education if and when they wished.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism