Unlikely as it might sound, one of the most electric political meetings I have ever attended was a lecture on the Finnish educational system given by Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator and author, in London in the spring of 2012. Sahlberg, who was speaking to a packed committee room 14 of the House of Commons – the most magnificent of a run of grand meeting rooms that directly overlook the Thames – has a rather laconic manner of delivery. However, in this particular instance, his flat speaking style proved the perfect vehicle for an unexpectedly radical message.
Sahlberg described how Finnish education had evolved, in the postwar period, from a steeply hierarchical one, rather like our own, made up of private, selective and less-well regarded “local” schools, to become a system in which every child attends the “common school”. The long march to educational reform was partly initiated to strengthen the Finnish nation after the second world war, and to defend it against Russian incursions in particular.
Finland’s politicians and educational figures recognised that a profoundly unequal education system did not simply reproduce inequality down the generations, but weakened the fabric of the nation itself. Following a long period of discussion – which drew in figures from the political right and left, educators and academics – Finland abolished its fee-paying schools and instituted a nationwide comprehensive system from the early 1970s onwards. Not only did such reforms lead to the closing of the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students, it also turned Finland into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era.
I was recently reminded of this meeting when reading a short pamphlet published in November 1964 by the Young Fabian authors Howard Glennerster and Richard Pryke on “the public schools”. Much of the pamphlet covers the same ground occasionally trod today by the odd brave soul: the social divisiveness bred by a parallel school system for the better-off; the disproportionate access of privately educated pupils to Oxford and Cambridge and then to the top jobs in society; the dispersal of bursaries largely to the cash-strapped middle class; and the numerous canny tax schemes enjoyed by both private school parents and the schools themselves that amount to large state subsidies to the most privileged in society. The pamphlet ended by dismissing the foolishness of those who say that state schools should “catch up” with the private sector. The answer was integration.
Madison’s non diverse K-12 governance model has long tolerated disastrous reding results.