THE BLOG

Revisiting the Spirit of Public Education

07/02/2014 12:53 GMT | Updated 09/04/2014 10:59 BST

A key figure from the movement that advocated universal education in the United States in the 19th Century was Horace Mann. He believed that education was a benefit to the public as much as it was to the individual and so, as secretary of the board of education of Massachusetts, and after visiting every state school in the state, published six main principles for public education. In 1838, he published these principles. One of which, was that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers. Mann's work on education in his state brought him recognition across the US and he has been described as the father of American public education.

Of course not all of Horace Mann's work at that time in education was popular. He stood for universal, secular education at a time when religious institutions were rooted strongly in whatever education institutions that did exist, as well as in the legislature. Also, not only did he appoint a woman to a teaching position, but he paid her the same as her male colleagues, more than 100 years before President John F. Kennedy signed the US Equal Pay Act.

Today, more than 175 years after Horace Mann won the argument for qualified teachers in public education in the US, we find ourselves revisiting debates about the most basic expectations in public education.

First our schools, and now our further education colleges have been given the green-light by the state to allow unqualified teachers in our classrooms, workshops and lecture theatres. Even the 'you can employ an unqualified teacher but they must do their training within five years' rule has now gone.

Teaching in a school is not the same as teaching in further education. But the principles which won over the US on the merits of tax-funded, universal and secular education can still apply.

In particular, Mann recognised the challenges that teaching those without educational and social privilege:

"Great knowledge is requisite to instruct those who have been well instructed, but still greater knowledge is requisite to instruct those who have been neglected" he said.

Further education specialises in working with young people and adults who need something different from the educational experience they've had so far in their lives. Many students have suffered "neglect" to varying degrees at some point in their educational and personal lives. For them, going to college is a second opportunity in learning that we simply can't afford to get wrong again. All those years ago, Mann recognised that something extra that is required of teachers to work with many of those that find themselves in further education.

So today, in the 21st Century, as our government abdicates its responsibility on teacher training requirements on our behalf as tax-payers, a government that is indifferent about the influences of profit and markets across our schools, further and higher education institutions and that appears to demonise and undermine the professionalism of our teachers at every given opportunity, we should remind ourselves of some of these founding principles of publicly funded education systems.