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