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International Socialism, Summer 1964

John Crutchley

Education and Class

From International Socialism (1st series), No.17, Summer 1964, pp.24-25.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The way in which the class struggle is fought out within the educational system is, perhaps, not as clearly apparent as the direct confrontation of classes on the shop floor. Not only do the distributive classes campaign for their own private interests, but the entire battle is fought with ideological weapons fashioned out of the smug utopias of the various factions within the ruling class. The whole educational struggle becomes confused with the result that ‘progressive social’ democratic forces tend to fight advanced battles in order to institute reactionary reforms. For these reasons it is vital that socialists understand the class interests that lurk behind reformists’ educational proposals, and that they are able at all stages of the fight to present a viable and realistic policy that challenges the class platitudes of both the old, established and vested interests and the new, suave and potential elites who are now seeking to reinforce their hold on the educational structure. This means that the present ‘educational debate’ that accompanies the expanding role of education in the economy must be continually related to the class biases of the powers-that-be.

The blatant class prejudices that underlie the Robbins Report should not need extended treatment, but, unfortunately the analysis of the British ruling class is so retarded that many socialists appear to believe that any social policy that threatens the immunity of Oxbridge is by definition ‘progressive.’ This viewpoint is grossly misleading as a class analysis of the Robbins Report shows. The Robbins recommendations for greater equality in higher education (but not within the total educational system) and the overall expansion of technological and scientific education are aimed at reinforcing the present class structure of Britain. Furthermore, their proposals will weaken the welfare services of the country as there is envisaged only a derisory increase in the number of doctors and a far from adequate expansion in the number of teachers. [1]

Every proposed expansion of higher education must be countered by stressing the inadequate state of primary education, as revealed in the Newsom Report. In slum areas the proportion of school buildings that are seriously inadequate rises to 80 per cent. The turnover of teachers is also much greater in slum schools and the teacher-pupil ratio is also less favourable. These conditions retard the slum child’s whole educational development. ‘ The average reading age of four year pupils in the problem schools was 8 months lower than the average in the modern schools generally. In schools in the slums it was 9 months lower still, 17 months in all.’ Nor have health and poverty problems been solved. In the slum areas ‘nearly twice as many fourth-year pupils get free dinners as in modern schools as a whole. Twice as many boys are under 5 feet high, and twice as many under 6½ stones in weight."

However, the struggle for education equality is more than a fight for clean and healthy school buildings: it means a struggle against class inequalities within the classroom. It is at this point that ‘progressive’ policies become reactionary. For example, the nationwide fight against the 11-plus exam since the war has been a fight against the working class by the petty and lumpen bourgeoisie, although this campaign has been supported by many rank and file members of the Labour Party and by many Labour Councils. Of course, it is true that selection by intelligence tests at the age of 11 is not a perfectly fair method of selection, but it is much more likely to be fair than teachers’ reports, which reflect pure class bias. Thus the lower middle class parents with mediocre children realise that their kids have more chance after the abolition of the 11-plus exam. This is illustrated by a study carried out in South West Hertfordshire by Floud and Halsey before and after the 11-plus exam had been replaced by teachers’ reports. The proportion of children of manual workers, skilled and unskilled, gaining grammar school places declined from 15 per cent, in 1952 to 11.5 per cent, in 1954. At the same time the proportion of children of professional and managerial parents rose from 40 to 60 per cent, in the same period. It follows from this that promises to abolish the 11-plus exam without introducing at the same time comprehensive schools and the end of ‘streaming’ should be resisted.

Those involved in the struggle for better schools must face the fact that the functions of education in a class society is to give the working-class child only enough skills to enable him to be exploited in the work place and not to emancipate him from social drudgery. This statement can be easily substantiated by the evidence presented in Dr. J. Douglas’s recent book, The Home and the School. This is a survey of the educational progress of all the kids who were born in the first week of March 1945 as they grew up. They were given intelligence tests, independently of the local authorities’ tests, at the ages of 8, 11 and 15. The results showed quite conclusively that the intelligence of the working-class child declines throughout his years at school! The class function of the school is to fit the working-class kid for the factory floor or the office desk – to exploit him and not to emancipate him.

Streaming provides one reason why the school retards the intelligence of the working-class child. Streaming is the practice of dividing children into ability groups (A, B, C, etc.) and by patterning the school process on the model of an assembly line it make the teachers’ job easier. The ideology in streaming is that each child gets the education he is fitted for, but its latent function is to reinforce the class structure. Children appear to be picked for the ‘A’ streams for ‘class’ reasons rather than on grounds of ability. Clean clothes and nails and nice manners create the right impression even at the age of five. Once in a ‘stream’ the child regresses to the mean, that is, those children who are educated together tend to become more alike. The result is that all those in the ‘A’ stream improve their IQ scores up to the age of 11, while the IQ scores of those in the lower classes decline. The first job of a socialist government, then, is to abolish streaming and to reduce the size of classes so that every child gets adequate attention.

Fred Wiley, Labour’s Shadow Minister of Education, stated a few months ago that the next Labour Government intended to abolish the 11-plus exam and streaming. But when challenged in the correspondence columns of The Times to repeat this statement he did not reply. It seems that his knowledge of education does not extend to a knowledge of what is entailed by streaming (in class terms) and that he wanted the whole thing forgotten. But as one aspect of a socialist educational policy is the abolition of streaming, this statement must be quoted against him if he becomes the next Minister of Education.

But the abolition of streaming is not enough; we must also campaign for comprehensive schools. The total comprehensive principle in education – which would involve the abolition of the public schools and the grammar schools – would lead to a more flexible and imaginative educational process. But no educational reform, however radical, can act as a panacea while the productive forces of society perpetuate class inequalities. Recent work by Dr. Douglas indicates that class biases in comprehensive schools are perhaps more apparent than in grammar schools. For example, the academic records of working-class boys in grammar schools is better than that of working class boys of similar intelligence in comprehensive schools. This is because, when a working-class boy gets to a grammar school, he tends to become divorced from his class and family, with the result that his social identity tends to be tied to his educational ability. However, in the comprehensive school the dichotomy between school and class peers is not so great, while at the same time the working-class boy faces increasing competition from those children of the lumpen bourgeoisie who would not have passed the 11-plus exam but the comprehensive school provide the prefects and the class ‘tone’ of the school, and stay at school just as long as the middle-class children do at grammar schools. The result is that the working-class boys leave early and the lumpen-middles enhance their class position.

Although enough research has not been done to show whether this increasing class inequality will be a general effect in comprehensive schools it does emphasise that to campaign for educational reforms in isolation from the other aspects of the class structure can sometimes result in ‘reforms’ that reinforce that class structure. This does not mean that we must not strive to abolish grammar and public schools, but it does mean that any particular educational reform that is gained will not achieve equality in the absence of a complete transformation of the total class structure. In education this entails the abolition of the family as the primary socialisation agency of society and the establishment of the residential principle throughout the whole educational system from the earliest possible age. At this point we reach the basic demands of a socialist educational policy which must always shape our educational proposals. To expand these principles would required another article; this present piece is merely intended to indicate the reactionary face of many educational reforms and some of the facts that, can be used to combat these tendencies and strengthen our demands for the classless society.


1. See my article Robbins and Newsome, New Left Review 23, January/February 1964, pp.65-69.

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