Gove’s latest crazy idea; hand community schools over to the church
Michael Gove is the worst education secretary we’ve had for some time – perhaps all time. I’m not being party political, as I don’t think much of Labour’s record either – specialist schools and academies were their bright ideas, leading to the gradual, now accelerating, destruction of the state system under local authority control. Since Gove took over at the Department for Education, he’s introduced one crazy idea after another, including free schools (see my posts about the Fullfledge Ecology School). This isn’t just my opinion; Gove is deeply unpopular with education professionals and the teachers’ unions too.
Michael’s latest lunatic plan is to hand over secular community schools to the Church of England. The NSS reports that he’s said,
I want the Church to recover the spirit which infused its educational mission in Victorian times and support more new schools — especially academies and free schools — to bring educational excellence to the nation’s poorest children.
Does Michael Gove pay any attention to opinion polls, which show that a majority disapprove of faith schools, or to the church’s diminishing congregations, or the evidence for the divisions in society caused by segregated education? He’s certainly ignorant of history. There’s no evident clamour for more religion in education; quite the opposite.
It’s true that the Church of England was the main provider of education for the poor during Victoria’s reign. I spoke about this, and the issue in general, in 2005.
We’ve already got a lot of faith schools – Anglican and Catholic – for historical reasons. We have an established church, which has had considerable influence. In the first third of the nineteenth century, voluntary church societies developed a national system of elementary schools. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 created a compromise between the church, which wanted to extend its influence, and radicals like Jeremy Bentham, who wanted a totally secular system. Voluntary schools continued with grants-in-aid, while local school boards ran state schools.
While the motives of some of those who founded church schools in the 19th century may have been altruistic, the overwhelming reason for the church’s involvement in education was, as now, to increase its influence. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was usual for children to work in the fields beside their parents or to help the families of those in the wool trade with spinning and weaving. The Factory Acts, from 1802 onwards, prohibited children from doing night shifts, then gradually reduced the number of hours that they were permitted to work. Only the children of the wealthy received any sort of education, but as poor children were prevented for working all day, they represented a problem – what to do with them, and prevent disruptive and criminal behaviour among the idle? As various schemes for educating children were proposed, there was some conflict between those with religious motives, and those who sought social improvements for everyone, free from religion.
Victorian society was divided by class and by gender. The church’s involvement with education simply reinforced both; the consensus was that you should “know your place”. Before church elementary schools were established, many children went to Sunday Schools.
The Sunday schools taught the poor – both children and adults – to read the Bible, but not to do writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’ which were ‘less necessary or even harmful’
This attitude changed, but not that much. Girls were not considered worthy of the same standard of education as boys, but were expected to concentrate on domestic science, in the expectation that they would end up in service or married.
Just as Mrs Thatcher painted a rosy picture of Victorian values, in her time as PM, Michael Gove is now doing likewise, with his notion of the church’s “spirit which infused its educational mission”. There are echoes of what happened upon the introduction of the 1870 Education Act, when what Derek Gillard describes as “The Church Problem” arose; it managed to wangle its way into the legislation so that it could continue to control its schools, which had become a financial burden, at public expense. See D Gillard, Chapter 3. The clerics must be rubbing their hands with glee.