Natalie Bennett: Schools, prison, welfare: they’re still Victorian in style

Social innovation is possible. It is happening in a fast-changing, multi-challenge world of environmental and social crisis. Just not in the UK.

Children living in poverty

Queen Victoria died 123 years ago, come January 22. At one level, were the late Queen to be transported into her own world, it would be unrecognisable. At least in terms of technology.

When she died Mercedes was about to make what is regarded as the first modern motor car, the 35HP, named after its power capacity, the first not to be modelled on a stagecoach. Today Teslas generate 283 horse power, and are rather more comfortable.

The first municipal telephone exchange would be opened in Glasgow a few months after the empress departed this life. Now there are more than 15 billion mobile telephones, in effect mobile computers, worldwide.

In medicine, when the Queen died bloodletting as a medical treatment had only just gone out of fashion. Now we have just seen the first successful face and whole eye transplant.

Technical innovation has come a long way in those 123 years.

Yet there is much about the social arrangements of the United Kingdom that the woman or man in the street of 1901 would immediately recognise.

Consider schools, if you set aside the technology of white boards and personal tablets. The structure, system and perceived purpose of schools is essentially unchanged.

The subjects taught and favoured, the external exams, the classes of several dozen all pupils of the same age all proceeding together, the idea that this is to prepare pupils for the workplace, the focus on discipline, on uniform, on conformity. They would be entirely familiar to the Victorian student.

Yes there is progress in the abolition of corporal punishment, but far too many schools still seek to force compliance, or forced out, pupils who don’t fit the standard model.

Consider prisons. Here even a lot of the physical structures are exactly the same. Thirty-two Victorian prisons are still in use today, housing a quarter of the prison population.

The Victorians were scrambling to build more prisons to house more and more inmates, as we are today.  The policy that criminals “had to be scared enough by prison never to offend again” is still widespread, and still ineffective.  

And in welfare, little has changed. The Victorians were big, as the Georgians and Tudors before them had been, on separating the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.

You don’t need research – although there is plenty of it – to know that such attitudes persist today; the whole focus of the conditionality of even basic benefits, with swingeing sanctions for those who fail to jump through hoops, would be entirely familiar to a Victorian workshouse keeper.

Much of the world has moved on from these Victorian approaches.

The Finnish school system, generally championed as the best in the world, prioritises learning over testing.

There’s a decade-long trend of falling prison populations across Europe. While the UK has the highest incarceration rate across Europe (159 people per 100,000), the figure in the Netherlands is 54 and it has been turning old prisons into schools and refugee centres.

In 2019, a German court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny basic subsistence to an unemployed person. “Housing First” is a fast-spreading policy that demands the need for shelter is met independent of other social demands.

Social innovation is possible. It is happening in a fast-changing, multi-challenge world of environmental and social crisis. Just not in the UK.

That has to change. Or at least in 2024 we need to move the political debate on to talking about these issues, instead of clinging on to failed century-old, punitive prescriptions that are making our society seriously ill.

Natalie’s book Change Everything: How we can rethink, repair and rebuild society will be out in March, and can be pre-ordered through Unbound. It focuses on social innovations from a universal basic income to a four-day week, to education for life rather than exams.

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