Factory Model
In the new Information Age, Education has a new role. Unfortunately, no-one yet knows exactly what it is and school systems across the world are still operating as they have been since the 19th century. It’s a old factory model, in which cohorts of children who happen to share their year of birth, are processed and tested as if they are on a production line.

It’s a model that worked effectively in the 20th Century but many would argue that it is now out of date.

Diagram illustrating how schools are organised like factories with ringing bells.Diagram illustrating how children are taught in batches based on the birth year

Education in Mediaeval Times
Let’s look back for a moment. In the Middle Ages, only the rich could afford to send their children to school. Boys went to grammar schools (so called because they taught Latin grammar) and girls were taught how to keep house and sew. Education was only for the rich and powerful. Everyone else laboured on the land, trying to grow enough food.

As late as 1788, John Byng wrote that he couldn't conceive of any reason to teach the poor to read.

Diagram of a Tudor schoolroom

A Tudor Schoolroom

Education in the Industrial World
With the coming of industrialisation, it became clear that the factories needed a literate workforce, able to read instructions and notices.

Education for All was proposed but there was much opposition in Parliament. Members said: “You must not teach the lower orders to read. They will get ideas above their station.” 

Despite this, the 1870 Education Act was passed. New schools were built and every child was taught “Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmetic” (the 3Rs) between the ages of five and ten (locally this could be up to thirteen if they hadn’t reached the required standard).

Photo of a class of children in the early 20th century

A class of children in the early part of the 20th century

Education in the Modern World
By 1900, the school leaving age had been raised to fifteen for all children and a form of secondary education was provided from ten to fifteen years old.

In 1943, near the end of the Second World War, the British Government decided that a new look at education was needed for the post-war period. It was part of a great social shake-up which included the creation of the National Health Service and the introduction of Unemployment Benefit (the “Dole”) and Old Age Pensions. 

Slate with "11-plus" printed on it

The 1944 Education Act sought to equip the next generation for success and prosperity in the industrial post-war years. It provided for three types of secondary school. Children would be tested in an examination known as the "Eleven Plus" to find out which type of school they were best suited for:

  • Grammar schools for the leaders and managers,
  • Technical schools for skilled workers
  • Secondary modern schools for the unskilled workforce.

In the event, grammar schools were well funded, very few technical schools were built and secondary moderns were underfunded from the start.

My Own Experience
I was educated in those post-war years, having been born in 1945, and I was taught to pass exams - the Eleven-Plus, then GCE O-Levels and A-Levels, followed by Higher Education. The objective was to get a job for life with a pension. 

It was drummed into me that failure to do this would mean a life of drudgery in a factory and I can still vividly recall my panic when struggling in one of the 11+ maths papers, believing that if I didn’t pass the 11+ my life hopes would be over.

This underlying principle still drives Ofsted and the present education system.

Education for an Information Society
Society has now transformed into the Information Society just as Christopher Riche Evans predicted it would 35 years ago. Robots control the production lines where once hundreds of people performed repetitive tasks and it looks as if the professions may sson follow as Artificial Intelligence improves.

What has become of the millions of workers who trudged to work every day and were captured in Lowrie’s paintings? They are not all unemployed as was once feared. The knowledge industries have generated new jobs - like web design and app creation - that we could never have imagined in our youth; and the creative arts have become major employers.

Even the idea of a job for life has already disappeared; the pension industry is in a state of crisis and zero-hour contracts are common. These are all signs of profound change. Change so deep rooted and widespread that the education system must adapt so that children leaving school today are not seeking traditional jobs but have entrepreneurial flair and self motivation that will take them into new and uncharted waters.

Next: Dramatic Changes

There's much more about the role of Education in the
Education Section of my website

© Brian Smith 2015