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International Socialism, Autumn 1963


Peter Ibbotson

School Classes


From International Socialism, No.14, Autumn 1963, p.39.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Secondary Modern School
William Taylor
Faber. 32s. 6d.

The Public Schools and the Future
J.C. Dancy
Faber. 18s.

The Comprehensive School
Robin Pedley
Penguin. 3s. 6d.

The raison d’être of the secondary modern school is the tripartite organisation of secondary education which itself derives from the educational tradition – a nineteenth century legacy – of the grammar school with its academic significance and the apprentice tradition of the workshop. The 1944 Education Act related opportunity for different forms of secondary education to ability and aptitude, not birth and wealth (hence, social class); but the social function of the modern school – measured by the point of entry of its pupils into employment – has belied the theory underlying the Act.

During the 50s, parents became increasingly aware of the inherent inadequacies and deficiencies of modern schools, and increasingly critical of the irrationality of selection for secondary education and the pernicious effects of segregation by the 11-plus. Their discontent provided support for the comprehensive school but Government policy was against any large expansion of the comprehensive school system. Officialdom therefore welcomed widespread local action to raise the status of the modern school and thus contain demands for comprehensive schools. Modern schools were encouraged to introduce the GCE; an examining body oriented towards non-grammar school pupils was set up in 1955, after the Ministry of Education had suggested it.

The GCE has been used by modern schools as a status symbol, and the number of their pupils taking it has risen dramatically, absolutely and relatively, since 1953. So, probably, has their rate of success. None the less,

‘the GCE work of the modern school is still some way from offsetting the known “error” in secondary school selection, which is generally agreed to be in the order of 10 per cent of the total age-group’.

Valid too is the criticism that often it is subjective and social factors which affect a child’s inclusion in a GCE stream: in other words, social class constantly and irrationally affects educational opportunity. As the Crowther Committee said,

‘the modern school as a whole are the most homogeneous element among English schools – the children of non-manual workers are much under-represented and the children of semi-skilled workers over-represented’.

This of course derives from the fallacious yet tenaciously held theory that social class and intelligence are correlated. (Social class and measured intelligence are indeed correlated, but only because the instrument of measurement has an inbuilt middle-class bias). Reliance on this theory leads to differential class-chances for selective secondary education in a tripartite system, which itself leads to gross and continuing waste of talent. ‘Secondary education in a mass society’, considers Dr Taylor, ‘must be thought of in total terms, rather than with reference to the education of the ‘average’ and the élite‘. Since efforts to raise the status of the modern school are blurring the edges of tripartism, he sees little justification for continuing the educational and social inequalities of that system. That is also Dr Pedley’s thesis, advanced with his usual cogency and persuasiveness, on grounds mainly educational, partly social. He shows that under total comprehensiveness (in Anglesey), GCE results at both A and O levels are better than in grammar schools: academically, undoubtedly comprehensive schools work. They have amply vindicated themselves against the the ignorance, prejudice and opposition which surrounded their birth. They have fulfilled the theoretical claims made on their behalf years before their birth by those of us who have ceaselessly demanded social justice in education and equality of educational opportunity for all.

For many of us total comprehensiveness – all the children of a neighbourhood attending the same secondary school – is the only alternative to segregated secondary education. Dr Pedley, however, like many well-meaning liberals who cling to the (largely illusory) shibboleth of ‘parental choice’ of school, believes there are other alternatives. He advocates, for example, ‘two tier’ secondary education: all children attend the same junior high school to 14, at which age parents opt for a child to transfer to a grammar school for at least two years more, or to complete his education in the junior high school. However, this alternative (as experience in Leicestershire shows) has the demerit of replacing academic selection by social selection – at least until the school-leaving age is raised to 16. Under total comprehensiveness the rigid and artificial division between the talented and the untalented would go. Ability would no longer be wasted. The present pattern of secondary education still reflects the organisation of nineteenth century society; a radical, forward-looking change, geared to the demands of the dynamic mobile society of 1963 and beyond, is what we need. Only the comprehensive school can transform society in the way it needs to be transformed.

Dr Pedley looks to the comprehensive school to achieve social and educational emancipation. For him the power of the purse, used to buy educational privilege, ‘sins against natural justice’; but he still urges that independent schools be preserved. So, naturally, does Mr Dancy, the Master of Marlborough.

Much criticism of the public schools concentrates on their social divisiveness, their class-consciousness and their equation of ‘superior’ education with the ability to pay. Mr Dancy confirms this criticism:

‘entry to the public schools is still, in a socio-economic sense, exclusive ... it is not becoming significantly less so ... moribund class-distinctions are being given artificial respiration by our educational system’.

The public school system is essentially middle-class; this class segregation leads inevitably to the heavy handicap of general ignorance of the working class.

In the light of these admissions it is hardly surprising to find Mr Dancy defending in principle the public school system (which for him equals boarding education), while seeking to reform its social isolation. He wants half the pupils to have their fees paid by the state, though the schools should remain independent of state control. What he would achieve, of course, would be the creaming-off of talent from the state school system – which would mean the assimilation of this cream to the oligarchy. Should Mr Dancy’s proposals ever be effected, that would be one more demonstration of the ‘ability of the ruling-class to adapt traditional institutions to serve its interests in the face of the advancing power of the working-class’.

At the public schools, 5 per cent of the nation’s children are taught by 9 per cent of the nation’s teachers. In this privileged situation (unaffected by teacher rationing which state schools suffer) can there be any wonder at the high achievements of even the moneyed dunderheads – whose modern school counterparts aren’t in the GCE stream? What we need is massive development and expansion of the state school system so that ALL children can be educated to the height of their ability; what we emphatically do NOT want is public money poured into the ‘public’ schools. Far rather should we abolish the power of the purse and the ‘right’ to buy education.

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