There are problems in our education system. Social mobility has been hurt by the ending of grammar schools. More top jobs are filled by public school kids than ever before. Kids leave school without being able to read and write and having poor arithmetic skills. European immigrants are preferred by employers to British kids. Teachers with their gold-plated pensions and log summer holidays still can’t weed out the mediocre, the poor and the just plain bad from their profession.
You know I suspect there is just enough of a grain of truth in all those statements to disguise where the real problems lay. I’m sure I don’t have all the answers, but we have to hope that we can find an answer, because what Michael Gove brings to the table could damage generations to come.
What’s my own expertise in the world of education? Not much I’m afraid. On par with most in that I went to school. I have seen my children in school and I’m now looking at my grandchildren. That of course places me in the pre-comprehensive education, being one of those who benefited from the post war education reforms.
So much was done by the 1945 Labour government that it shames Labour’s later periods in office. The education reforms were not Labour’s, but from the wartime coalition with Rab Butler in charge of education. In 1945 we were lucky to have Ellen Wilkinson (Red Ellen) to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act.
So now we had a new system, but more importantly free secondary education. I was in a faith school with a common London school building type of a block with three or four floors and flat roof doubling as a playground. Initially the school had primary (infant and junior) and secondary pupils, but as the reforms were implemented the secondary aged kids were moved off to a different school.
What had arrived was the 11-plus examination. With this a single exam at the age of eleven pretty well decided a child’s future. Depending on the result the child went to either a grammar, technical or secondary modern school. The die was cast.
The grammar school kid could have free education through to A-levels at 18 years of age and the others were really expected to leave education by the time they were 15 years old. I should say here that I consider the technical schools were a great idea that never caught on for various reasons. They should have been on par with grammar schools and made an easy path into industry for kids interested in engineering and such. In reality very few were opened.
What probably saved the secondary modern schools back then was an appetite for new employees in British industry. There was a post-war labour shortage, something that no longer exists and it would make any return to this form of schooling even more unfair than it was at that time. Was the 11-plus unfair? Yes without doubt. To have a child’s future hanging on the result of one exam at this one moment in time would always be unfair. The children of the rich in private education didn’t have to rely on their ability to pass this exam. For me any return to the old system of selective education would be a crime against this country’s citizens.
Comprehensive education was the dream of many of the post-war Labour politicians. They saw it as the way to give all children an equal chance. Many had of course benefited from the social mobility grammar schools followed by university had given them, although back then the Labour Party was still well leavened by working class men out of industry. In 1965 with Tony Crosland in charge of education the introduction of comprehensive education was greeted with joy by many in the labour movement. So why now does it take the blame for some of those problems I started this article with?
Let’s start with social mobility. The big claim was grammar schools allowed more working class kids to move up the social ladder. Now when we look at top jobs in the state sector, in politics including the Labour Party and in the City we are more likely to find kids from fee-paying schools filling these posts. That seems pretty damming, no grammar schools equals less working class kids in top jobs. Things begin to change when we look a little bit closer.
The fee-paying schools are getting better A-level results. Yes that makes sense. Why else would parents pay for their kids’ education except to get a better education? (OK their may be other reasons like mixing with your own social class and so on.) Remember that students of Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) are more likely to get a top job than other university students. We know that Oxbridge will judge students on the A-level grades, along with some judgments made during interviews which probably don’t help the working class kid that much.
So comprehensive schools are getting lower A-level grades than the fee-paying schools. Why would that be? Teachers possibly not as good? Slower kids holding back brighter kids? There has to be a reason or reasons and a fix. Or are those A-level grades not so important? Now that’s a big ask, but it’s been shown that kids from the comprehensives once they get to university out-perform the kids from the fee-paying schools so maybe there’s something in it.
What we do see since the end of grammar schools is the desertion of the middle-class from state schools. (I’m not going to get into the postcode thing as it would take too long. Needless to say there are some state schools which have more in common with fee-paying schools than not. Kirkcaldy High School when Gordon Brown was there and the Miliband boys at Haverstock Comprehensive School would be examples of where state schools can be very attractive to middle class parents.)
Middle-class kids leaving the state school system is interesting because they always did make up a high proportion of grammar school kids. Were they smarter at age eleven or is it more to do with middle-class parents knowing the value of education better than those in the working class and therefore pushing their kids harder back then. So are the problems the fault of comprehensive schools or is that education is not comprehensive enough? Are rich parents buying their children a place at the top table?
(Part two to follow fairly soon.)