A tripartite system of secondary schools puts the child first. The different kinds of schools are to be designed to suit different children, not different social groups, or the incomes of their parents. No child should be forced into an academic education which bores it to rebellion, merely because that type of grammar school education is considered more socially desirable by parents1.
However hard Ellen Wilkinson tried to persuade the country that technical and secondary schools would be as good as grammar schools, people saw them for what they were — a hierarchy that further entrenched the status quo. Education is ultimately a political issue, for it is concerned with a child’s relationship to the world, both then as a pupil, and as a future adult. In 1945, for all its optimism, England remained a jealous and divided nation, forever looking over its shoulder to see what others were doing. It still didn’t believe in equality — what an Englishman was looking for was an equal opportunity to be unequal. The first sign of trouble came quickly. Having abolished fees for grammar School pupils in 1945 there was, quite unexpectedly, an increase in the number of children being sent to independent schools2. From the moment the middle-classes realised that a grammar school education no longer implied a social or financial superiority, and that henceforth the doctor’s daughter might find herself sitting next to a gifted labourer’s son, the middle-classes started to forsake the state sector in increasing numbers.
It was in the early planning for the secondary modern school, the schools being expected to take some three quarters of all English children, that Wilkinson came closest to creating the kind of progressive learning environment anticipated by John Dewey. Education to many a Labour politician was the way of escaping a blue-collar job3. Secondary modern (from here on called ‘Modern’) schools were encouraged to create within their walls an image of an idealised home, a haven from the pressure of society — a place far removed from the deadening routine of industrial work that it was feared such children would all-too-soon be forced into. It seems that behind the Modern school stood the ghost of the lost village4 for, in this confusion of philosophies, Labour’s idealism sought to protect the child from the ravages of capitalism. But these schools were soon to be let down by both political parties. From the start of the new building programme a third more money was allocated to the building of new grammar schools than was allocated to Modern schools. Then, in 1953, actually with R. A. Butler as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the capital cost of Modern schools was cut by a further quarter5. Take a walk around schools built at that time and you will note the startling differences. By 1965, twenty years on, four-fifths of Modern school buildings were deemed inadequate, a third of them had no science laboratory, a half no gymnasium and a quarter no library. Additionally differences in the quality of teaching were stark; a youngster attending an average secondary school had a reading age of seventeen months greater than a mate in a slum area.
Depending on the part of the country in which a child lived he might have a one-in-two chance of a grammar school place, or only a one-in-six chance6. Not only was a grammar school entry a lottery of place, it was based on a form of testing that was soon recognised to have at least a 14% inaccuracy factor ─ one child in seven was misplaced. Psychologists, other than Cyril Burt, argued that if the tests were taken on five separate occasions, rather than one, it would be far more accurate. As this would cost 3/9d (eighteen new pence) rather than 9p (four new pennies) administrators deemed it too expensive. Parents were instantly suspicious, and spent much money on extra tuition to make sure that their children were well groomed to outwit the testers. Public antagonism grew even more vociferous as it was noted how quickly youngsters slipped into performing simply at the level expected of them.
The impact of the Eleven Plus Exam was frequently devastating7. One headmaster recalled how a father told him about his son; “We always thought, his mother and I, that he was a bright laddie. I have a shed and in my spare time I do a lot of carpentry. He used to come in and help me, and then he started making things for himself. He made a bookcase, and he bought a blueprint and rigged up a wireless set for himself. Pretty good reception, too. We bought encyclopaedias from a traveller that came to the house and we encouraged him to read them; and he did. He used to spend a lot of time in winter evenings reading about science”8. The father stopped, and then after a pause added almost apologetically, “Oh well. Maybe we built up our hopes too high”. He smiled, a slight, sad smile. “We always think your ain bairns are pretty good. Better than they are really, I suppose”. Parents who have watched the miracle of birth and growth are briefly informed on the basis of a single number that the miracle is over9. Their children are just ordinary, below average in I.Q. The magic has fled, and the wonder gone out of life. To understand England today is to remember that very many of the grandparents of today’s so-called ‘difficult’ pupils were just like that young boy; they had been regarded by their parents, and by themselves, as have-beens. It wasn’t their fault; it was the result of the system that was flawed from the start.
Thesis 66: 24th August 2006