WHEAT AND CHAFF

TuckerGrammar and School – what is it about the combination of those two words that provoke such frothing at the mouth? Labour’s leading intellectual of the post-war era, Anthony Crosland, didn’t mince his words in his post as Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. ‘If it’s the last thing I do,’ he allegedly said, ‘I’m going to destroy every f**king Grammar School in England’. From an early 60s Labour perspective, entry to the Grammar School system via the 11-Plus exam was symptomatic of elitism within British society, whereby the lucky ones gained a fast-track to social mobility and the losers were relegated to a lifelong manual scrapheap courtesy of the Secondary Modern, written-off as factory-fodder before they’d even reached adolescence. But was it really so bad?

History tells us that Grammar Schools in the 50s were primarily packed with middle-class pupils, whilst Secondary Moderns were reserved for the working-classes; but the 11-Plus was class blind. If a child was academically bright enough, he or she made it, simple as that. My parents were both born the same year (1943) and both emanated from similar non-socially privileged backgrounds; my mother failed her 11-Plus, whereas my father passed his. My mother, like many girls of her generation and background, wanted nothing more from life than to be a housewife with children, so the 11-Plus was effectively irrelevant to her ambitions; those that wanted more had the opportunity to achieve it (admittedly to a lesser degree than later generations of women) if they passed their 11-Plus, so the exam served its purpose.

The Labour Party that gained power in 1964 regarded this segregation of the population at such a young age as cruelly mapping out their prospects for life, which is interesting; maybe Wilson and his contemporaries sensed traditional heavy industry was already living on borrowed time and that condemning half of Britain’s schoolchildren to a dying working environment was sowing the seeds of future mass unemployment? If so, they certainly didn’t spell it out at the time. Perhaps, bearing in mind their dependence on the support of unions, they daren’t.

The 1944 Education Act could retrospectively be viewed as the midwife to the Swinging 60s. Its introduction enabled working-class Baby Boomers not to have to beg local education authorities for the privilege of a scholarship (as future Tory PM Ted Heath did) to elevate themselves above humble origins, as they would have had to have done before the War. The Act opened the doors to academia for those to whom it would previously have been barred – born troublemakers like John Lennon, for example; a candidate for expulsion, he managed to slip into Art College thanks to a teacher who saw potential that, prior to the 1944 Act, would have had no higher education outlet. Lennon wasn’t alone; most of the musicians, writers and artists who played their parts in the Pop Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s benefitted from the Tripartite System of education, and the wider world benefitted from their benefits.

The social mobility that the Grammar School and its examinational Open Sesame facilitated greatly transformed British society for the better in the decades leading up to its eventual abolition in the mid-70s; and it’s worth looking at how social mobility has declined in subsequent years. How much the eventual subjugation of Grammar Schools by Comprehensives from the 70s onwards, as well as an increasing emphasis on the ‘everyone’s a winner’ educational mindset, has contributed towards the resurgence of success based upon nepotism and the old school tie is something that requires a longer debate than we have room for here; but there’s no doubt that naive belief in intellectual equality is responsible to a degree.

The announcement that the new PM intends to increase the number of Grammar Schools in Britain in an attempt to boost social mobility has been met with predictable protests from the Corbynistas as well as the Liberal Democrats. The former, ironically, betray their Blairite sympathies with their objections. Tony’s determined effort to make universities accessible to all was a misplaced egalitarian experiment that assumed every school-leaver actually sought another four or five years of education. The lack of investment in manual labour apprenticeships and alternatives to the tuition fee treadmill showed a short-sighted appreciation of what some children want from life, making a mistake in assuming Tony’s goals were replicated across society. Yes, of course universities should be open to the bright, regardless of where they come from; but the Blair Government reforms have merely priced the academically inclined from less-privileged backgrounds out of the market and have crammed today’s universities with wealthy dimwits.

It’s no great surprise that rent-a-quote media socialists such as Owen Jones have been so quick to criticise Theresa May’s proposals; the communal philosophy of Corbyn’s left wants to reiterate that all men (and women) are born equal – which should be a given, anyway; that some want to work with their hands and some want to work with their minds is always overlooked when it comes to this rather blinkered aspect of socialist thinking. Personally, I believe the Prime Minister should be given the benefit of the doubt. Unlike her predecessor in Downing Street, she didn’t have success handed to her on a plate; and if an increase in Grammar Schools gives the less-fortunate an opportunity to achieve success currently denied them, this is something that should be applauded rather than condemned with the token jerk of a knee.

© The Editor

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6 thoughts on “WHEAT AND CHAFF

  1. Being objective, the overall aim of the nation’s education system is to produce the ‘materials’ which our economy and society needs for its future. Those materials include doctors, lawyers, engineers, techies, bankers, accountants, plumbers, mechanics, clerks, hairdressers, sales assistants, cleaners, the lot – we need a blend of every skill-set to emerge from the system to enable our society to be the best it can be. And none of that should be dependent on what random quality of silver spoon graced your gob at birth, rather it should be a function of your basic natural aptitudes and your development through education.

    To date, all national approaches to education have been flawed, no government has been able to configure the system so that it offered fair and free access to all to the type of education most suited to the individual. And it’s not easy, because different kids develop at different rates, so any rigidly-aged test at 11 or 13 or 15 can never get it right. Add to that the rampant dogmatism which both sides of the political spectrum apply to this sensitive area, and it’s inevitable it will swing from one pole to the other, from which the real losers are the kids themsleves in the short-term and our society in the long-term.

    But I must declare an interest – as the bright kid of poor working-class parents, I was immensely fortunate to benefit from the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ which, back in the early 1960s, enabled any kids who could pass the Entrance Exam for a top selective school to have most or all of the fees paid for them. My state primary school headmistress badgered my parents to enter me for the Exam and, when I passed it with ease, to allow me to grasp that opportunity. They did, I did, and I have benefited from that start throughout my life. Hence, I retain a real admiration for that sort of scheme – it was selective, but it offered such amazing opportunities to some of the ‘poor’, which the succeeding ‘socialist’ models of education have never replicated, rather they have tended to dumb-down the whole system to a lowest common denominator level in the interests of transparent ‘fairness’. Which is better, you decide.

    If Mrs May is moving towards that earlier sort of wider opportunity for all, then she will have my support – but if she’s just doing it to secure reliable Tory votes around Tunbridge Wells and the M4 corridor, then that’s not going to benefit all those bright but ragged-arsed and under-privileged kids around the country like I was, so she’s just playing politics. The jury’s out.

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    1. I myself reached the 11-Plus age a couple of years after it disappeared from the curriculum in England and Wales. I remember the ‘egalitarian’ system well at high school in particular, when one ‘swot’ made it to university. The prospect simply wasn’t presented as an option for me and my classmates in the early 80s. The choice was manual labour or the dole.

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      1. Another example from the ‘old’ system was my late business partner, five years older than me, grown up on a modest council estate. He failed the 11-Plus as expected, but there was a re-sit opportunity at 13, which he managed to pass. On leaving school, he became a lowly lab-assistant in the Chemistry Department of the local university, where he was encouraged by the tutors to go off and acquire some decent A Levels so he could study Chemistry there himself, which he did. He got a degree and became an industrial chemist, working mostly in Africa, then developed an interest in IT, which is how we first met. He was probably the most brilliantly creative, imaginative, inquisitive and analytical people whom I have ever known, eventually winning international awards for his work. And he had failed the 11-Plus, so it was not the ‘black mark for life’ as often claimed.

        That oft-discredited old system still had ways for late-developers like him to overcome their poor start and to realise their potential. OK, he had to work for it, but at least the system allowed for it.
        Any new approach which a government proposes has to be smart enough to incorporate that sort of flexibility and alternative channels, in order that we do not waste the concealed potential of blokes (and blokettes) like that, whose modest origins may otherwise preclude their progress.

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  2. Education is not just utilitarian – it has a worth in and of itself. Educate people to continue to want to educate themselves. I am a council estate boy, Dad a bus conductor, Mum the housekeeper, and I was successful in the 11+ to make it to Grammar School.

    What was most useful (for me) was that I met boys (it was boys only) from other socio-economic backgrounds – and so did they. One conversation stands out vividly in my mind, where I and another pupil had to explain to each other the concept of council housing (me) and mortgages and owning you home (him).

    Of course, the standard of education was good and the academic ethos of the school only fostered in me increased curiosity and helped me with an attitude to the world more than with achievement per se. I still want to educate myself and did a night class recently in quantum mechanics (as much about philosophy as science).

    Maybe we should be focusing less on that achievement aspect rather than the attitude. What about more social mixing, so that kids from ghetto estates end up mixing with the the residents of leafy suburbs? I know in theory comprehensives are supposed to do this, but they rely on catchment areas. I’m thinking more of the American busing system (which, I know, was aimed at increasing racial integration, but I think social integration is as important).

    But there are as many thickos in leafy suburbs as there are bright minds on council estates, so if that busing idea seems obnoxious to some, then selective education might be as good a way to ensure social mixing as any other.

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    1. As a poor kid at a ‘rich’ school, I certainly agree that selection enabled social integration, as I encountered boys from wealth backgrounds far removed from mine and I hope they gained something form their interaction with me and my ‘kind’.
      As you identify, catchment areas are not a good way to enable social mixing, if anything they make matters worse by encouraging the virtuous circle of middle-class folk living near better schools, thus further excluding the poor and reinforcing the position of sink-schools in sink-areas.
      Bussing is a particularly blunt instrument: having lived in an area where it was covertly conducted, the daily sight of double-decker bus-loads of mostly dusky faces being delivered to the leafy suburb schools, while their native kids were arriving by family people-carrier and Volvo, was a quite distasteful sight. Kids gain more from their social interaction outside school than within it, but if they’ve been bussed in from miles around, they’re never going to become evening and weekend playmates to allow that to happen, so the objective fails.
      Even testing doesn’t achieve it – the keen middle-class parents will simply send their kids to ‘feeder’ primaries or engage paid tutors to ‘train them to the test’, again excluding bright kids of poor or less focused families.
      I don’t pretend to know the answer but, having witnessed the constantly declining output quality over the past few decades, then we know that the most recent, one-size-fits-all, approaches have certainly not delivered it, so maybe it’s time to go back to some basics, remove all the fanciful froth, and focus on the means of developing the range of young adults our society needs, even if we have to accept some hard truths along the way.

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