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The state of education: beware the threat of nationalisation

The prime minister's rallying call was 'education, education, education'; all were impressed, few dared question the strategy.

The result: new universities, new city academies, new schools.

Government might well invent a new name for schools, as it is now about learning not teaching, placing the 'customer' first. Is this a new direction, where students take responsibility, or evidence of an abdication of responsibility elsewhere? Either way, that there is less teaching obscures the fact that there is more control of what is taught.

The minister for education, David Miliband, talks of the huge wedge of our cash he is going to spend on us for our own good. I can't recall whether it's £2 billion or £4 billion but does that matter? Not once you are big in government; as a US senator remarked in a spending review in the '60s, 'a billion here, a billion there; very soon you're talking serious money'.

Construction will benefit from the education contracts to be won: a few by style in competition, a number by fortune in direct commissions, but by far the greatest number in the war of attrition that is PFI.The press is excited; headlines have attacked the odd glamour project - tales of architecture placed ahead of learning, shock and outrage. I don't know the ins and outs but I do know that teaching (sorry, learning) facilities take time to settle down in use.Anyway, the press focus is misjudged - if they are worried about the landmark academy initiative, just wait until the big PFI programmes start rolling out.There will be few tales of highquality architecture, and many of cheap, uninspiring construction and a total absence of delight.

There is another side to this and it is not about buildings and procurement - it is about the state control of education. I was brought up on tales of the French national curriculum and the sinister Maoist idea that at any moment, at any time, all children were receiving identical lessons - all carefully designed by the state. Just as many now find the idea of a nationalised car industry hard to fathom, perhaps future generations will struggle with the idea of nationalised education - even health. The latter will perhaps remain too entrenched an orthodoxy to question; we will still hear horror stories of hospital corridors, queues and the manipulation of figures.

Nationalised education, while not yet an established orthodoxy, is very much a creeping one.Models of independent education remain but they are under pressure. The Architectural Association (interest declared: I am an honorary treasurer) has steadfastly resisted amalgamation into a university and survived because it remains a benchmark of what can be achieved in education - and its doors are open to the public.Fantastic, you would think. The reality is somewhat different. The school, punished for operating outside the system, does not receive adequate grant support and, as a result, charges fees. This helps its international status for the wrong reasons. (The ARB is another government body that cannot help but look to expand its powers by attempting to define the curriculum for nationalised architectural learning. ) Much of this programme for nationalised education can be traced back to one of Miliband's predecessors, Thatcher, who ironically was later to become the great privateer.The creeping orthodoxy is dangerous in architecture and education in general.

The debate about student fees diverts attention from the content of their courses.Discussion should move away from 'how many, at what cost?' to 'what are they learning, who sets the texts?'

The threat to the independence of educational thinking, however skilfully disguised, is a serious one. If you have doubts as to whether it matters, you need only to reflect on the last example of government setting the educational programme. I refer, of course, to the disastrously insulting programme for 'The Centre for Nationalised Learning as Fun for the Masses' that was the Millennium Dome. `

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