In 1942, the Beveridge Report included ignorance as one of the five “giant evils” in society (along with want, disease, squalor and idleness). Seventy years on, how far have we come in vanquishing the evil of ignorance in Britain? Ignorance is in fact rather difficult to measure directly, so we’ll begin by talking about education.
Shortly after the Beveridge Report, the Education Act 1944 made secondary education free for all; other reforms followed e.g. the Raising of the School Leaving Age in 1972 and the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.The effects of these reforms can be seen directly in the trends: the percentage of 16 year olds in full-time education has been steadily increasing (see Figure 1), and the percentage enrolling for Higher Education shot up after 1992 – the greater number of available places at universities meant new opportunities for large numbers of school leavers (Figure 2). In addition to greater participation, it seems that pupils have also been doing better in exams. The percentage gaining 5 O-levels or GCSEs has risen quickly since the late 1980s – Figure 3 (see here for more detail on the recent trends in achievement at Key Stage 4).
Taking participation and grades as indicators of progress, then, it seems that Britain has come a long way indeed. But if we think of ignorance as a lack of ‘factual knowledge’ or a ‘state of being uninformed’, what do the trends in education really tell us? The kind of trend we showed in Figure 3 is sometimes accompanied by the inevitable grumble that exams are getting easier these days (a point that is surprisingly hard to prove, and that also seems a bit unfair towards kids taking them now). Nonetheless, the ‘point of inflection’ in Figure 3 (i.e. the point of the sudden upturn) does coincide with the introduction of new government targets, so we do have reason to look for corroborating evidence elsewhere.
Good overtime data are scarce, but there are several studies that have collected data on population literacy and numeracy (e.g. PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, Rashid and Brooks (2010)). When these independent sources of evidence are plotted alongside educational attainment, we can see there have not been accompanying rises in literacy and numeracy – see Figure 4 from Robert Coe’s inaugural lecture “Improving Education: the triumph of hope over experience”. However, by some measures it would seem that there is very slow but steady improvement in mathematical and verbal test scores among British school children (Figure 5).
But what about the wider non-economic benefits of education and of vanquishing ignorance? Educational attainment is linked to having higher levels of social capital, greater tolerance, and higher rates of political participation and engagement with democracy. Surely then, as the population becomes more educated, we should also see societal improvements in these areas too? We looked at trends in some of these areas to see if we could find evidence for declining ignorance in these non-economic areas of life. For tolerance, we looked at attitudes towards same-sex relationships – see Figure 6 – where the trend is rather striking. In 1987, just 10% agreed that same-sex relationships are not wrong and by 2013 this had increased to 70%.
Can we put this increasing tolerance down to increasing education? The more-educated do tend to be more tolerant, but education cannot be the only driving force. In Figure 7 we show attitudes by educational attainment and it is clear that it is not just the highly-educated who have changed their attitudes: rather, everyone has. This is good news for British society but it is difficult to couch this change in terms of a decline in ignorance, particularly as intolerances may have grown with respect to some ‘out-groups’, e.g. Islamophobia, attitudes towards welfare recipients.
In contrast to tolerance, we find a different story with regard to political efficacy, which is measured by asking people: How much do you agree that sometimes politics so complicated that a person like me cannot really understand what is going on? The overall trend (Figure 8) shows that efficacy has been slowly increasing since the late 1980s. In this case, when we look at the trend by education (Figure 9) we find flat (or at least flat-ish) lines suggesting that the increase in efficacy is explained by the fact that there are now more individuals in the higher categories of educational attainment. This may be one of education’s triumphs, giving citizens the skills they need to engage with the complexities of democracy and to have the capacity to make a difference.
In conclusion, there are reasons to be optimistic about our progress in the fight against ignorance. While the avalanche in educational qualifications is likely to be misleading as a measure of progress, there is some gradual progress in literacy and numeracy, as well as steadily increasing feelings of political efficacy.