There was (and still is, in fact) an education for gentlemen and young ladies, whose purpose was to make them more perfect specimens of what they were intended to represent, or perhaps it was mostly to pass the time, or for the good of their souls. We need not concern ourselves with this, since it would have been of little benefit to the other social classes.
There was an education for specific trades, which was an excellent thing as far as it went, but it limited the aspirations of the artisan class by making it very hard to move out of it.
When investment and trade became more important, and the mere acquisition and working of land less so, in the 18th C, very roughly, general education in the sense that we understand it today became more important. Literacy and numeracy provided many opportunities to those who acquired these skills, and they are not at all easy to acquire if you are surrounded by people who don’t possess them, have no concept of their value, have no one to help you to learn them, and spend all your waking hours mucking out cows.
Education gives children more opportunities to choose from, the chance to aspire to more and greater things. You only get one chance at life. It is worth helping the young to make the most of it. A well-educated society is likely to be wealthier, happier, stabler and more peaceable. That is why your humble blogger, a crusty old right-winger, as you may have noticed, is quite happy to pay through his taxes for the education of those children whose families cannot provide it themselves. (The same is true of healthcare. Not dying of the first germ that crosses your path, or having your quality of life destroyed by something that can be treated, is so important to us all that it is worth helping each other out). Not the way it’s done in Britain now, of course, where both of these systems are enormously expensive and inefficient, but the principle is a good one.
From the simple and observable fact that children’s futures depend very much on the education they acquire, certain consequences more or less immediately follow. Every aspect of education should be directed to that end. There is much more to childhood and youth than education, but that part of childhood which is education should have its purpose clearly in view at all times.
Resources should be concentrated on the majority for whom their education really is their future. The way education law and policy is constructed leads inevitably to a concentration of resources, both money and teaching time, on the minority whose future does not depend on the level or quality of their education, because they are unable or unwilling to take part in adult society in any way in which education would be useful. Both in theory and in practice, bright, ambitious young people, who could be the majority in the right circumstances, are sacrificed to the need to tick boxes on behalf of people who will never benefit from it.
And that is why education matters to most people. It gives them opportunities in life that they could not otherwise have had. Getting to meet people from different sections of society, which is often given as a reason for putting everyone together, is an unbelievably stupid motive for depriving some, or many, children, of the education they could otherwise have gained. The idea that some particular kind of life experience, whose exact value is open to question, and which can be and usually is obtained in other ways, somehow makes up for the poorer education they are forced to accept, is monstruous and asinine, but it is frequently trotted out as though it were a convincing argument.