Why are popular perceptions of the NHS and the public education service so very different? Both, in their modern form, are the achievements of the Attlee government which have done most to transform British society for the better. Both have the potential to be politically contentious. Yet one is a sacrosanct institution to which politicians have to pledge commitment; the other is routinely criticised and is the target of politicians’ constant denigration.
It isn’t as if the NHS is without its critics. “NHS complaints up by 4.6 per cent” say the placards for my local paper. There are regular accounts of unsatisfactory service – indifferent doctors, uncaring nurses, dirty wards, poor catering and medical negligence. The BMA has even brought doctors out on strike.
This isn’t all that different from the criticism so familiar to those working in the public education service – failing teachers, poor standards, lack of discipline and unions itching to obstruct and disrupt. There even seem to be significant proportions of the population who value good health as little as they value education.
There does seem to be one important difference, however, in attitudes to the two public services. In health there may be local and personal criticism, but there is fierce loyalty to the national institution. In education there is often regard for individual schools but little for any wider local or national service.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the NHS is so appreciated. It frees people from the fear of the direct cost of illness and treatment, and it helps them when they are at their most vulnerable. Advances in science and technology are enabling practitioners to introduce ever more remarkable forms of treatment to ease suffering and prolong life.
Unsurprisingly, its employees, particularly doctors and nurses, are respected, not least because the knowledge they require is outside the experience of those who have not studied medicine. Even those who opt for private health care realise that they may have cause to be grateful for the existence of the NHS, if only for the ambulance service and the A&E departments.
How different it seems to be in the education service. For many, education is associated with imposed and resented authority, with unhappy memories, punishment and failure. The shared responsibility between teachers and parents can create tension. The daily involvement breeds a familiarity which can lead to a lack of respect for the profession if not for individual teachers. There isn’t the mystery of medicine or the excitement of new advances. On the contrary, so often the emphasis appears to be on looking back to a mythical better time.
Does the difference in perception lie in the history of the development of the two services? The NHS was a radical change, a new approach to meeting need and a symbol of a new and better society.
By contrast, the public education service developed incrementally, its scope extended by successive Education Acts from 1870 onwards. It never became a national institution. Loyalty, from teachers, parents and pupils, has always been to the individual school.
Politicians have been able to exploit this to pursue their agendas, encouraging schools to “opt out” and become grant-maintained or academies. Critically, perhaps, the public education service has always been for other people’s children. Often those who influence attitudes and pronounce on its perceived shortcomings have never had any personal or family experience on which to base their judgements. But ignorance does not appear to inhibit ideological certainty.
But is it about to change? If there is to be a national system of funding, is there now in reality a national education service in which the debate, as in health, is going to be over the extent of privatisation, but for which the secretary of state will have to be accountable for what happens? And then we shall see!