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International Socialism, Spring 1966


Peter Ibbotson

Class Beginnings


From International Socialism, No.24, Spring 1966, p.35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


English Primary Education
W.A.L. Blyth
Routledge; Vol I, 30s; Vol II, 25s

The besetting sin of education in England is stratification, which at all levels exists as educational enemy number one. It begins in the primary school where, as elsewhere, it is either imposed or voluntary; at this level an example of imposed stratification is the existence, with its demands, of the 11 plus. Clearly demonstrable as voluntary stratification is the existence of private, fee-paying schools.

Different attitudes to education necessarily and naturally involve different attitudes to stratification. Tories accept it; they see the education system as machinery to serve the demands of the economy and to perpetuate social division. Socialists reject stratification, seeing the education system as machinery to serve the needs of the individual and to promote social cohesion through equality of educational opportunity for all. Education in a socialist society is education for a full life, promoting social mobility through opportunity to develop to the full unequal talents, and by getting rid not simply of stratification but of all factors tending towards it.

For stratification inhibits social mobility, which is checked, by the extent to which the values and skills of one particular class are represented in the normative and behavioural requirements of the school system. Middle-class value-orientations pullulate in school: teachers are middle-class, those articulate parents who support their local Association for the Advancement of State Education are middle-class, PTA activists tend to be middle-class. The primary school sees the embryonic dichotomy of middle-class expectations versus working-class aspirations. The middle class emphasises the school’s classificatory, i.e. stratificatory, role; and the degree of influence exercised by an individual school, as well as the extent to which middle-class parents make use of it – instead of opting out of the state system into the private sector – both depend on how far its classificatory role satisfies middle-class expectations. Or, bluntly, on how much of a swotshop it is.

To dismiss the foregoing as biassed and baseless class-conscious propaganda would be easy – and wrong. For Professor Blyth’s sociological study of primary schools in England – albeit scholarly, comprehensive, not without wit, more up-to-date than such studies tend to be, and brimming with seminal research suggestions – is on the whole a melancholy book. Melancholy, because it upholds one’s strictures on stratification and social immobility; melancholy, in what it reveals about the attitudes of most parents, many administrators, too many teachers, and a lot of pot-hunting junior school heads, to primary education. In primary education, Blyth says, there are three traditions: first, the preparatory, mainly an upper middle-class phenomenon, related almost exclusively to grammar-school education; second, the elementary, associated with cheap and inferior instruction for workers’ children, denying after the Industrial Revolution from the pre-revolutionary upper-class do-gooders’ conscience-salving and self-imposed social obligation to paupers and orphans; and third, the developmental, by Robert Owen out of Emile, 150 years old at most, the only tradition bound neither by the limitations of cheapness and inferiority nor by the demands of its sequel.

The first two are deeply rooted in English educational history and are linked ineluctably with stratification, with the role of the schools as propagators of social division, prevented from acting as complete social solvents, as grease-guns for the channels of social mobility. Unfortunately it is these same two traditions which are held in highest esteem by parents susceptible to the emulous pressures of the affluent society; notwithstanding that it is only the developmental attitude (primary education is a stage in its own right but is itself incomplete) which guarantees the acquisition of social values and patterns of social behaviour through active participation in collective living. To the developmentalist, who recognises the importance of the school’s socialising role, the child’s world is essentially exploratory; but to the stratificatory traditionalist, to whom the school’s classificatory role is all-important, the child’s world is essentially passive. Children’s expectations of school are conditioned by parental attitudes; parental rewards are determined by those same attitudes. Parental conceptualisation of their children’s brightness likewise depends on their view of the child s world as exploratory or passive.

Preparatory-minded parents can undermine the total culture-pattern of a developmentally-oriented school; preparatory-minded teachers may stultify the full and free development of pupils whose parents’ value-orientations do not match the value-orientations of the school. Either way, social class determinants impinge powerfully upon primary education, tending to regiment rather than stimulate the children; unfortunately they will continue to do so until we have in England undifferentiated secondary education and no private sector. (In other words, freedom from social class determinants is a prerequisite of a national system of education.) Until then, though, the developmental tradition with its sense of involvement, of active commitment between school and society, will make little headway against the entrenched preparatory tradition beloved of betters-aping parvenus who revere ascription above achievement.

Pace Sir Fred Clarke, who has pointed to the chaotic outcome of the habit of thinking about education in terms of class, Professor Blyth of necessity returns time and again to the influence of social class on the history of primary education, the content of primary education, the organisation and administration and staffing of primary education, and above all the aims and methods of primary education. Only those who wilfully close their eyes to facts will deny the inescapability of that habit – and the necessity of eradicating its cause.

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